Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. recently demonstrated the power that comes with incumbency and his continued popularity as he raided the Democratic Party's list of top donors for his single largest fundraiser since taking office.

Ehrlich's aides estimate he collected from $1 million to $1.2 million during a few hours at Martin's West, a popular spot for political events in the Baltimore area.

Arguably the most surprising aspect of the event was the presence of several men who have long bankrolled the state's Democratic Party, many of whom have until now had limited association with the Republican governor.

Among them were Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, Heritage Properties Chairman Michael J. Batza Jr., Ocean City hotelier Leonard Berger, Ocean City businessman Charles R. "Buddy" Jenkins and the host, businessman Lou Grasmick.

Perhaps the biggest surprise appearance came from Michael G. Bronfein, the Baltimore financial executive who served as former lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's finance chairman in her race against Ehrlich.

Bronfein did not return messages left at his office. But Democratic officials were quick to write off Ehrlich's ability to draw so many party rainmakers as owing to the office, not the man.

"These are people who are business people," said Democratic Party Chairman Isiah Leggett. "We understand that they have to ensure their business concerns are well protected, and will have to do what is wise for them, given the vast number of issues that will come across the governor's desk."

Leggett called it "a reality that we have to deal with today. That's what comes with having lost the governor's office."

But Ehrlich aides said they believe the event illustrates something more than just the drawing power of the office.

"They see [Ehrlich] as someone who is very straightforward, and who stood up and brought them results to problems like the pollution of the Chesapeake Bay," said John Reith, Ehrlich's campaign finance director. "Bottom line is, they see a winner."

The result, Democratic campaign finance consultants said, is that Ehrlich is getting a critical early edge in the fundraising for the 2006 race.

While Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, both considered likely Democratic challengers to Ehrlich, have been out raising money, it's too early for either to be holding an event on the scale of the Martin's West affair. (Ehrlich had a host committee with 72 members, each committing to raise between $5,000 and $25,000).

O'Malley has a proven ability to raise money in the seven figures by himself, but he is still enmeshed in a mayor's race that has stretched over a year, because of a quirk in the campaign calendar. Duncan has never raised even close to $1 million in one night.

But Leggett said he's not worried.

"We will probably not outpace the governor in his ability to raise money," Leggett said. "But we have a lot of other strengths as a party in this state, and I don't believe we have to match him dollar for dollar."

Sabatini Ready to Exit

Maryland Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini is getting set to retire, again.

Sabatini, who served as health secretary under Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D) and ran the University of Maryland Medical System, delayed a move to Hawaii and a cool life in the shade to head the department under Ehrlich.

Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver said that Sabatini signed on with the expectation that his service would last a short time, and after two years, that time is nearly up.

DeLeaver said a short list of candidates is vying for the coveted Cabinet position, including Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County), a physician who is also one of the legislature's most conservative voices, and former state senator Robert R. Neall, who serves as a finance director at Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System.

Nelson J. Sabatini, right, shown with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich last year, plans to retire as secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene soon.