The question for Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. came about halfway through the breakfast meeting of three dozen Republicans in Annapolis last week: "Can we talk about Governor Ehrlich?"
The Republican congressman from Maryland's 2nd District, northeast of Baltimore, hasn't declared yet--isn't sure he will--but increasingly is hearing that question, and others. Will he run for governor? Will he run for U.S. Senate? If there was a statewide election for dogcatcher, he would probably be asked about that, too, as his party desperately tries to find a winner in a state dominated by Democrats.
Coming off last November's elections, which devastated Maryland's fledgling GOP, many Republicans are pinning a lot of hope on Ehrlich, 41, a former state delegate and photogenic three-term member of Congress. He's trying to broaden his appeal by carving a reputation as a moderate in a party that has been defined by its conservative wing in recent years.
He supports abortion rights and, though first elected in 1994's GOP congressional tidal wave, has managed to vote against enough of the GOP's Contract With America to offer a rebuttal to likely Democratic charges that he's a Republican revolutionary in the mold of former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich.
"For a statewide candidate, you've got to put Bob right at the top," said former state GOP chairman Joyce Lyons Terhes.
A lot of Democrats agree, viewing him as the GOP's most potent threat.
"If there is a future for the Republican Party statewide in Maryland, Bobby is it," said D. Bruce Poole, a conservative Democrat from Washington County, who was House majority leader when Ehrlich served in the General Assembly.
So Ehrlich finds himself with choices. He likely could win the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, but doesn't appear too anxious to take on Paul S. Sarbanes (D), who is gearing up to run for a fifth term. He is considering the 2002 governor's race but says it's too early to commit--especially with the economy humming and little apparent voter unrest with the Democratic leadership. He could probably stay in Congress--where he is on the Commerce Committee and is close to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.)--and work his way up to a leadership post.
"Politics is as close to athletics as you're going to find in life. I'm competitive, and I like to win," said Ehrlich, who was captain of the football team at Princeton.
His calculations about his future necessarily include whether he thinks he can win statewide, but, at least for the gubernatorial decision, also includes whether he believes that, after a decade as a legislator, he'd be a good executive. He says he's not sure yet on either.
In the meantime, he's raising money under both state and federal rules, squirreling away $530,000 in his federal account and about $80,000 with his Maryland committee, aides said.
The sign of Ehrlich's strength within the Maryland GOP is also a sign of the party's weakness in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 and every statewide office, including both U.S. Senate seats and the offices of governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller, have long been in Democratic hands.
Only state party Chairman Richard Bennett, a former U.S. attorney who was Ellen R. Sauerbrey's running mate last year, rivals Ehrlich for the top tier of potential statewide candidates. U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella, the Montgomery County Republican, could join that group but so far she appears content to stay in Congress.
So Ehrlich has been moving to capitalize on his status. Last month he made a two-day tour of Western Maryland, and he has been speaking at dinners, luncheons and breakfasts throughout the state, including last week's Wednesday Republican Breakfast in Annapolis. He raised money for GOP candidates last year, taught candidate schools and paid for a poll for GOP candidates to use in their campaigns. He voted for President Clinton's impeachment, but that didn't hurt him in his reelection race, which he won with 69 percent of the vote.
His district stretches north out of Baltimore County and encompasses all of Harford County; a small southern slice extends into Anne Arundel. But in the voter-rich Washington suburbs, he is not well-known, acknowledged Montgomery County GOP chairman Robert Miller.
But Ehrlich's got time to become known, Miller said: "He's young and a good speaker and attractive. He could do fairly well here."
For much of the last decade, Sauerbrey, the two-time unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, has personified Maryland's Republican Party. A staunch conservative, she opposed abortion rights in a state where voters had passed a statewide referendum supporting choice, and she was a fierce partisan while in the state legislature. When she made her second run for governor last year, she tried to moderate her image but voters didn't accept it.
Though Ehrlich and Sauerbrey are close personally--they represented the same Baltimore County district in the General Assembly--Ehrlich was viewed as less partisan. "Bobby in Annapolis was strong for business but generally a guy willing to make deals and get things done," said Poole, who remains friends with Ehrlich.
Ehrlich's message continues to focus on helping business and lowering taxes. He has differed with the GOP congressional leadership on abortion, doesn't support term limits, considers himself an internationalist on trade issues and has earned some labor support in his home district.
In this television-dominated era, he has an attractive wife, Kendel, who's a lawyer and an enthusiastic campaigner. The couple had a baby boy, Drew, two weeks ago. His personal story could resonate: He is the only child of a car salesman and legal secretary who won a football scholarship to Baltimore's prestigious Gilman School and then to Princeton, and he worked his way through law school as a football coach.
One area where Ehrlich said he believes he can make inroads against Democrats is among female voters, a block that helped ensure Glendening's victory over Sauerbrey last year. But that may be difficult if he's running against Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the early favorite among party insiders for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
One way to judge how the Democrats view Ehrlich will come when congressional seats are redistricted after next year's census. One school of thought is that Democrats will make his seat so attractive he won't want to leave it. But another is that they'll make his district so unfavorable for Republicans that he could lose reelection and be without a platform for his political aspirations.
Ehrlich professes not to worry about things that he can't control. He's got enough problems just being a Republican in Maryland. "Is it going to be easy?" he said of whatever he decides. "Of course not."