Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was hailed as the savior of the Maryland Republican Party when he won the governor's race last year, the man who attracted national attention for restoring the GOP to power in Annapolis for the first time in a generation.
Three months into Ehrlich's term, however, a more somber mood is pervading Republican circles as the governor struggles to assert his power and tries to recover from a series of bruises inflicted upon him by Democratic lawmakers who still control the General Assembly.
The chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party told a crowd of 700 party loyalists Thursday that Ehrlich deserved a C-plus for his performance during the annual legislative session that ended last week.
Not only was the remark uttered in Ehrlich's presence, but the speaker, Stephen N. Abrams, said the governor agreed with his assessment afterward.
"One of Bob Ehrlich's problems is he's too nice of a guy," Abrams said in an interview. "This was as partisan of a [legislative] session that you'll ever see in Annapolis. Bobby was much too collegial. . . . He thought friendship would transcend everything."
Ehrlich remains a hero to many Republicans in Maryland, simply for winning in a state where Democrats hold a 2-1 advantage in voter registration and have dominated politics for a half-century. And while he's in no danger of facing an insurrection from within, there is palpable disappointment and even a little grumbling in the GOP over his track record so far.
The governor's legislative agenda was not treated kindly by the General Assembly, which passed only one of his priorities -- a charter school bill -- in a compromise that gutted key provisions. His bid to legalize slot machines collapsed, an outcome for which many allies said Ehrlich had no one to blame but himself. And he earned a footnote in history for becoming the first Maryland governor to see one of his Cabinet nominees rejected by the Senate.
Sen. Larry Haines (R-Carroll) called Ehrlich's first months in office "a learning curve." He said the governor's staff was slow to draft bills and failed to detect early warning signs that his slots plan and a proposal to stiffen prosecution of gun crimes were in trouble.
"The biggest fault I find with the administration is that I don't think the staff invited and sought out enough help with their legislation," Haines said. "All the legislation that they drafted was pretty much rushed."
Many Republicans said Ehrlich's woes were not entirely his fault, pointing their fingers at Democrats who they said were eager to teach the new governor a lesson. They predicted that Ehrlich would learn from his missteps, but added that inexperience would not suffice as an excuse for long.
"He got caught in a bear trap," said Byron Malogrides, a retired military officer from Anne Arundel County whose family donated more than $2,000 last year to Ehrlich and other Republican candidates. "He got his feet wet. I think the next time the assembly meets, it will be a different tone.
"Yes, he got jammed in the breach, but that's because he didn't have a lot of Republican steps to follow in," Malogrides said. "If it's a continual slide till the midterm, I say maybe then we'll have to take another look at this thing. But he's got 31/2 years still in front of him."
Ehrlich rarely mentioned his party affiliation during the campaign, portraying himself as a moderate who would reach out to Democrats and independents. He named several Democrats to his Cabinet and pledged to create a bipartisan tone of cooperation in Annapolis when the legislative session began.
After the House of Delegates rejected his slots plan two weeks ago, however, Ehrlich abruptly changed his stance and became more confrontational. He vowed to slash spending next year and said he would veto any tax increases, including a package of corporate tax increases, much of which he had agreed to earlier in a compromise with Democrats.
"Six weeks ago, they were talking about major tax increases," Ehrlich told donors at Thursday's fundraiser in Silver Spring. "Today, nobody's talking them. Because we changed the terms of debate.
"Sometimes, success is measured by things that do not happen," he added. "Slowly but surely, they're getting it."
Ehrlich has found support for his new hard-line approach in a poll that the Maryland Republican Party commissioned a few days before his slots bill died in the House. Aides said that the survey put the governor's job approval rating at more than 60 percent and that most voters are adamantly opposed to higher taxes.
Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, said the poll "strengthened our resolve" to reject an offer from House Democrats to legalize slots if the governor would agree to an increase in the sales or income tax. Democratic leaders have said that higher taxes are necessary to erase the state's chronic budget problems.
Ehrlich's get-tough rhetoric has heartened GOP loyalists, including some Republican lawmakers who threatened to rebel in March when the governor told Democrats that he was open to raising corporate and property taxes.
"Initially, I admit, I had some misgivings," said Del. Herb McMillan (R-Anne Arundel). "I thought he was too willing to compromise with [Democrats]. He extended an olive branch to them, and they beat him over the head with it.
"The governor, like all of us, has probably learned a lot from this session," McMillan said. "I'm confident that he's the man to lead us."
James Gimpel, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, said Ehrlich was still trying to figure out an effective way to govern as a Republican in a predominantly Democratic state. He said the no-compromise approach might work if Ehrlich can put pressure on conservative Democratic legislators who are uncomfortable with their party leadership's endorsement of tax increases.
"He's probably thinking right now that a more moderate approach didn't work . . . so he's scratching his head trying to figure out how to make things happen," Gimpel said.