After showering in a gush of praise from first lady Laura Bush at a fundraiser Thursday evening, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. seemed more eager than ever to talk politics.

The Republican governor was especially focused on the battle for one of Maryland's U.S. Senate seats. Longtime Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D) is retiring in 2006.

While Ehrlich's lieutenant governor, Michael S. Steele, has not announced his intention to enter that race, Ehrlich seemed to consider the decision as good as made.

"Clearly, [President Bush and the first lady] will be helping Mike," he said. "The president is very excited about Mike. He asked me about it" during Bush's appearance in Baltimore.

"My honest appraisal is, Mike has a good chance. Mike's going to have all the advantages of the White House and of our administration," Ehrlich said. He then began ticking off the reasons he believes Steele's chances are good: " I've looked at his fundraising, check. His appeal across party lines, check."

"On the political end, a lot of our energy, time and thought has been devoted to Mike," Ehrlich said.

When asked if Steele's exploration period had ended, the governor laughed and said: "This is not an announcement! Seriously. This is not an announcement."

According to Whom?

While her husband was plugging Steele with reporters, Maryland's first lady, Kendel S. Ehrlich, was busy touting the governor's accomplishments. During her remarks to 250 supporters, Ehrlich declared that her husband "is the environmental governor, and that's according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation."

The next day, foundation officials were puzzling over the remark. The nonprofit group does not endorse political candidates, said executive director Kim Coble. "We have no record or recollection of making that comment," she added. Coble said the foundation called the governor's office for help identifying the context in which such a statement was made, but Ehrlich's staff couldn't provide any help.

Pull of the Preakness

Officials at the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development reported spending $144,875 to rent four corporate tents at this year's Preakness in Baltimore. They also dropped $44,800 on catering for the 400 guests, according to a report filed with the legislature's budget committee chairmen.

The horse race, which the state has used as a marketing tool since 1988, provides "an unparalleled opportunity for the state to reach an international audience," according to the report. The focus this year was expanding global agricultural contacts, and the department boasted success in persuading visitors from Korea and the Philippines to buy several dozen Maryland-bred racehorses.

A number of those on the guest list, though, didn't travel quite so far. More than 100 were high-ranking state employees and their spouses. Also attending: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s mother, father, aunt and uncle; and Kendel Ehrlich's father and sister.

Fans Wave In for Cardin

Votes kept Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) in Washington on Wednesday. But he sent several dozen fans -- of the hand-held variety -- to the 29th Annual J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake in Crisfield to advertise his Senate run.

The small, red-and-blue placards provided some welcome relief from the overwhelming heat for even some of the bake-goers unlikely to support Cardin's bid next year.

"Is he a Republican or a Democrat?" one woman asked a Cardin volunteer when approached about accepting a fan.

"Oh no," she exclaimed upon learning Cardin is a Democrat. "Well, I'll take one anyway."

The afternoon event on Maryland's Lower Eastern Shore long ago emerged as a traditional stop for aspiring politicians and those promoting them.

This year's event was as notable, however, for those who didn't make the pilgrimage as for those who did. Among the absentees: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele; Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), a gubernatorial hopeful; and Senate candidates Cardin and former congressman and NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume (D).

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D), who is campaigning for governor, made the biggest splash at the event, drawing a band of reporters as he mingled for a couple of hours and drank some beer. O'Malley was shepherded around by Del. Norman H. Conway (D-Wicomico), one of many local pols on hand for the event.

Duncan, who was attending a convention in Hawaii, sent his 24-year-old son, Michael Duncan, in his stead. The younger Duncan's outreach included getting his picture taken with the Mar-Del Watermelon Queen and Miss Crustacean.