Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was set to fly commercial to his first meeting of the Republican Governors Association this week when his aides got a call from Ohio. Would Ehrlich care to share a charter flight to California with one of the association's leaders, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft?

Sure, said Ehrlich, who spent much of the eight-hour trip fielding questions about how he managed to win Maryland, where there hasn't been a Republican governor in 36 years.

"It was like, 'How'd you do this again?' " Ehrlich said today. "There's still this sort of incredulous feeling out there."

With his upset victory over Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) this month, Ehrlich has become one of the brightest stars in the GOP firmament. Now he has to prove that his victory extends beyond Election Day, that he can rebuild his party in a state where Democrats rule the legislature and virtually every important office.

Republicans across the country will be watching in hopes that Ehrlich has hit upon a strategy that can help extend their grip on power deep into Democratic territory.

"What you have to look at is not just winning Maryland but how it was done. He did it by appealing to black voters, Hispanic voters and soccer moms -- people that are hard for us to get," said Ron Kaufman, chairman of the association's finance committee and political director in the George H.W. Bush administration.

"Maryland is a great microcosm," Kaufman said. "It's how we won in Maryland that we're excited about, and it's where we're looking for lessons for 2004."

Ehrlich campaigned as a fiscal conservative, a social moderate and an affable guy-next-door who wanted to open the GOP to all comers. He chose an African American running mate, former state party chairman Michael S. Steele, and reached out to black voters and other minorities. He refused to cede ground in Baltimore and the liberal Washington suburbs to Townsend, campaigning aggressively on her turf.

It paid off: On Nov. 5, Ehrlich took 52 percent of the vote to Townsend's 48 percent, holding onto his Republican base, winning among independents and attracting many crossover Democrats, exit polls showed.

"I think there's a center-right coalition in Maryland that includes moderate Democrats, business Democrats and Republicans and I believe it's a majority viewpoint in the state," Ehrlich said today. "It's fiscally conservative and moderate on social issues. And I think it's a pretty good model for our party in the future."

The governor-elect arrived Thursday for the conference at a spectacular oceanfront hotel in this Orange County resort town. He hobnobbed with fellow governors and actress Bo Derek and attended a session on homeland security before heading back to Maryland on Saturday to see his wife Kendel, who has been hospitalized for pneumonia.

Throughout the conference, Republican governors and politicians hailed Ehrlich as a GOP hero, one who knocked off a Kennedy in a state where Democrats have a 2 to 1 advantage in registered voters.

"Bob was a star in Congress, and he'll be a star as governor," said former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour. "Conservatives like him and trust him even though he's not as conservative as they are. He not only will build the party as an institution, but will be a force for Republicans winning the votes of independents and Democrats."

Already Ehrlich has moved to install his moderate message as the dominant philosophy of the state party by tapping John Kane, a Montgomery County businessman, as party chairman.

Kane concedes that he is inheriting a party organization with problems. While the GOP picked up a few seats in Annapolis this month, it remains a weak minority with only 57 of 188 lawmakers. Kane's wife, Mary, was among many Republican State House candidates defeated on Nov. 5.

Republicans were unable to field competitive contenders for comptroller and attorney general, the only statewide offices besides governor and lieutenant governor.

More troublesome for Ehrlich, the party is dominated by Christian conservatives, anti-abortion activists and dedicated gun owners whose socially conservative views are highly unpopular in the state's most populous communities.

Nonetheless, Kane believes that Ehrlich can lead Republicans into the majority in Maryland, just as President Bush did as governor of Texas and as former governor James S. Gilmore III did in Virginia.

"It's possible, probable and likely," Kane said in an interview. "When you look at the voting trends, what Marylanders came to the table with on Election Day, they may want a moderate on social issues and the environment, but they want conservative fiscal constraints and candidates."

Others say Republican dominance is virtually unattainable in Maryland, where Democrats have had three decades to stack the deck. Maryland is one of a few states that elect state lawmakers every four years instead of every two, a boon to incumbents. And House members run mainly in large, three-member districts that tend to favor white Democrats.

Gilmore, who presided over the GOP's takeover of the General Assembly, said turning around a Democratic state is "technically very difficult."

"I don't know if it's possible in Maryland," Gilmore said at the governors' conference. "But if anyone can do it, Bob Ehrlich can."

Even Ehrlich concedes that Republican dominance is unlikely. "You have to live in the land of the real," he said.

But it will no longer be a problem for Republicans to attract talented candidates and the money to sell them to voters now that a Republican is in the governor's mansion, Ehrlich said.

The GOP also is targeting Democratic lawmakers from conservative parts of the state and appealing to them to switch parties or face a strong Republican challenge.

"In the next four years, there shouldn't be a Democrat left on the Eastern Shore or in Western Maryland," said Jim Dornan, a Republican consultant and a close adviser to Steele. "There's going to be a national spotlight on the state right now. This is an historic opportunity to build this party."

Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. listens to a speaker at the GOP governors meeting, where he is being hailed as a hero.