Hounds are baying in the twilight. A chestnut mare gleams in a paddock. In a verdant valley in northern Baltimore County, a gubernatorial contender is being feted at Maryland's oldest fox hunting club, the Green Spring Valley Hounds. The sign at the end of the unpaved lane leading to this rarefied enclave is so discreet it is marked with initials -- "GSV" -- because if you have to ask how to get here, you don't belong.

The guest of honor is not the candidate with the richest bloodline, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. It's her Republican opponent, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., son of an Arbutus car salesman who has won 13 consecutive elections telling voters about his simple working-class roots.

Inside a white tent, lanky men with chiseled features and family trust funds line up to pay homage.

Ehrlich -- whose luck, pluck and football prowess catapulted him from his parents' modest rowhouse to prep school and Princeton -- grabs a microphone and makes clear how perfectly at home he is. "As I look around the room here, this is, basically, 'This is Your Life!' " Ehrlich says.

The candidate, a broad, muscled 44-year-old, cheerfully points out old school chums from Baltimore's exclusive Gilman prep school for boys.

Fondly, he hails a pair of elegant, silver-haired brothers: Redmond Finney, the revered former Gilman headmaster, and Jervis Finney, a former U.S. attorney who ushered Ehrlich into his silk-stocking Baltimore law firm. The Finney brothers are two in a series of older, powerful men who have fallen under the spell of Ehrlich's charm and become key mentors in his rise from Arbutus.

"I'm not going to say that Jervy is excited about this campaign," Ehrlich jokes to the gathering, "but he has become a major pain in the ass to our campaign staff."

The landed gentry laugh warmly. "Bob is just so comfortable in his own skin," says Pat Finney, Jervis's wife. "People really respond to that. He is who he is, no matter who he is with."

Indeed, in a state where no Republican has been elected governor since Spiro T. Agnew in 1966, Ehrlich is in a dead heat with Townsend in part because he has a large cadre of supporters captivated by his persona: the Cult of Bob.

Backers, from the polished and privileged to the proletariat, say they see more than just an ingratiating ex-jock in the candidate. They praise his character rather than his intellect, his drive more than vision. And many like to think they see something of themselves in him.

"I know what Bob's about," says Steve Rau, 42, a former Democrat who drives a bread delivery truck in Carroll County and has been staking out Ehrlich signs for months. "We're both hard workers."

Ehrlich's first coach, George Kendrick, 80, calls the candidate "a real Sir Lancelot."

"Just knowing Bobby, my life is fulfilled," Kendrick says.

Ehrlich is so accustomed to the impact of his personal appeal that when a staffer brings him coffee from the Starbucks in the basement of the Cannon Office Building, the candidate asks:

"Did you tell them it was for me, down there? They are big Bob fans, the Starbucks ladies. Big Bob fans. They have hats, autographs, pictures. They've got their families voting for me. . . . It's really fun."

The Cult of Bob has some obvious nonbelievers. Liberals galled by his less-government conservatism say it denies the less-fortunate the kinds of opportunities Ehrlich has enjoyed in life. He has offered scant details about how he'd solve Maryland's most pressing problems, including a looming budget deficit. Critics say Ehrlich has failed to articulate why he's running for governor, other than that he thinks he can win.

The determination to win that made him a standout prep school and Ivy League athlete has left some of his vanquished political opponents feeling blindsided. "He's immature, selfish and arrogant," says Connie Galiazzo DeJulius, a Democrat Ehrlich trounced in his 1996 reelection bid for the 2nd District congressional seat.

DeJulius was humiliated in that campaign when someone -- Ehrlich denies it was his campaign -- distributed fliers in Dundalk, where she grew up, portraying her as a divorced "home wrecker" and contrasting her marital history with Ehrlich's family values.

The story of Ehrlich's humble beginnings in a hardworking family has proved one of his most powerful and enduring political weapons.

"I am the American dream," Ehrlich said in a 1994 radio debate during his successful first race to represent the 2nd District in Congress.

Although Ehrlich served eight years in the legislature, he didn't especially emphasize his Arbutus rowhouse roots until he ran for Congress and sought to contrast himself with his Democratic opponent -- and old Gilman and Princeton pal -- Gerry L. Brewster. The scion of an aristocratic Maryland family, Brewster is the son of former senator Daniel B. Brewster (D-Md.) and a descendant of Benjamin Franklin's.

"People want to know your life story, and that's my story," Ehrlich says. "The contrast was relevant, because for the first time I was going to be representing neighborhoods that looked a lot like Arbutus. The people living there were almost all Democrats. It was certainly a way to get people not to reject me because I was a Republican."

Brewster offers a less benign explanation. "He belittled my background saying, essentially, 'Gerry Brewster comes from wealth and privilege and he hasn't had to work,' " Brewster says. "I see him doing the same thing to Kathleen.

"He's got a formula he's figured out that works for him. Among the traditional, Democratic working-class constituents, he grew up in this rowhouse in Arbutus and worked his way up. Among the prosperous Republicans, it's a different pitch: 'I vote against gun control. I vote against government support for people in need. I vote for business. I vote against tree-huggers and taxes.' And they love him because he's helping them maintain their rich, Republican lifestyle. He has it both ways."

Despite the political mileage Ehrlich racks up talking about being the son of an Arbutus car salesman, he has enjoyed many of the same opportunities as a rich kid. In some respects, because his athleticism and personality attracted powerful mentors, Ehrlich has lived as if he were the son of a captain of industry -- but without the cash.

"I think that's fair," says Ehrlich, sitting sideways in an upholstered chair in his congressional office, feet resting on an end table. "There were opportunities provided, and I was at least smart enough to take advantage of them with some really good guidance and some great mentors."

But with opportunities came expectations. "Screwing up is not an option," Ehrlich says. "Definitely, you have the feeling that you do not want to disappoint people who have had so much faith in you. Any of them: teachers, coaches, parents, people who were looking to me to do well and really expected me to do well because the opportunities had been provided."

Decades after his Princeton graduation, Ehrlich dutifully sends his college football coach press clippings about his adult accomplishments. "He probably wanted me to be proud of him," says Robert F. Casciola, now president of the National Football Foundation and the College Football Hall of Fame.

The candidate's helmet of thick, dark hair is flecked with gray now. As Ehrlich heads into middle age -- and perhaps the governor's mansion -- he says that if he could change anything about himself, he'd like to feel a little less eager to please. "There is a tendency as an only child, and maybe as a politician, to want to please people," he says.

When an office visitor begins to recount a story about the devotion of Ehrlich's father, and number-one fan, the congressman implores the visitor to stop. "Don't," he says, closing his eyes and waving his hand to ward off the story. "Don't. Don't. Don't tell me. I don't want to know. I have enough pressure in my life."

Pride of the Family

"Look at that sweet little boy. Look at that sweet little face. How could anybody not vote for that sweet little face?"

The candidate's father -- the man Ehrlich calls "my agent" -- is exclaiming over an old newspaper clipping with a gap-toothed photo of "Bobby" as an 11-year-old student at Emmanuel Lutheran Christian Day School. The local Civitan Club had awarded the sixth-grader $25 for outstanding achievement in citizenship, scholastics, school activities, participation and popularity.

Robert L. Ehrlich Sr., 72, is sitting in the dining room of his meticulously maintained rowhouse on a tidy stretch of Dolores Avenue in Arbutus. He is leafing through 14 scrapbooks, their pages yellowed and crumbling. The proud father made them thick with souvenirs from his son's life on the rise from schoolboy awards to White House invitations.

"You don't know how many cold winter nights I just lie in bed looking through these," he says.

Some pasted entries are newspaper clippings about legislation Ehrlich Jr. supported that favored business owners, not workers like his father. The father shrugs. "Let me assure you, I don't agree with all his votes, but I would never try to interfere," he says. "I'm a car salesman -- I'm going to tell a Princeton graduate how to vote?"

Ehrlich's mother, Nancy, a legal secretary, was so devoted to her son that when he was young she wouldn't tackle household chores until he was asleep. "He always came first," she says. "To me, that was the ideal mother. He was our life. That was it."

The boy, in turn, was so easy and eager to please that his parents swear he walked at 7 months and was toilet-trained by his first birthday.

Ehrlich Sr., who sold cars on commission, never made more than about $35,000 and couldn't afford to buy a home until Bobby was 11.

To bring in extra cash, his mother took in typing. She'd type from 10 p.m., after her son went to bed, until 2 a.m.

Ehrlich's first coach once told his father "that when he saw Bobby walking around Arbutus, he thought the kid had to be the biggest sissy, because he was always holding his mother's hand," Ehrlich Sr. recalls. "Then he saw him play ball.

"Even when he was 5, 6, 7, you could see he had natural ability. I'd throw a baseball at him as hard as I could, and he'd just catch it and throw it back like it was nothing."

Ehrlich Sr. persuaded his boss, Alan Abramson, whose family owned Archway Ford, to attend young Bobby's Little League games, even though Abramson had children of his own. "I've always looked at myself as sort of a surrogate father to him," says Abramson, now 70 and a campaign volunteer. "His father encouraged that. . . . I just thought he was something special.

"I'm not sure what that secret ingredient is, even now. I'm not sure it's something he does consciously. It's just the way he goes about living his life. It's just so easy to connect with him. He's there to serve your needs. If you want a friend, he wants to be your friend."

Ehrlich's relationship with his dad's boss proved life-changing.

By age 13, he was nearly six feet, too big to play football with boys his age. So he joined a tough adult league. Some raucous older players, so family legend goes, drank beer and smoked pot at halftime.

Abramson sent his own son to the exclusive Gilman. He cajoled a Gilman teacher and football coach, Nick Schloeder, to come see young Ehrlich hold his own against adults on the football field. Schloeder did, and he was impressed.

Gilman invited Ehrlich to take an entrance exam and attend the school on a scholarship based on need. He arrived wearing bell bottoms, platform shoes and a "chip on my shoulder" about the class differences between him and his schoolmates, Ehrlich says.

Based on Ehrlich's less-than-stellar exam score, school officials wanted to hold him back a year and place him with younger students. Ehrlich refused and vowed to study hard to catch up with his class. His father recalls waking up in the middle of the night and finding his 14-year-old son sitting at his desk studying, his head in his hands.

Ehrlich was the only sophomore on Gilman's varsity football and baseball teams. As a senior, he captained both teams. By graduation, he had won every major athletic award at the school.

Along the way, he enjoyed an unusually large rooting section. His father's boss gave him his first car, a Falcon, as a gift. When he played ball, the Archway sales floor would empty.

His fans included Redmond Finney, then headmaster. When the scholarship fund under which Ehrlich was attending the school ran dry, Finney quietly wrote checks to Ehrlich Sr. so he could pay his son's tuition.

"Aptitude tests don't measure character, but character is what is important," Finney says.

Unlike rebellious students, Ehrlich "never succumbed to drinking and running around," Finney says. "He never touched the stuff, and he didn't mind saying he had no use for it. Training rules were to be kept to the letter."

Ehrlich enrolled in Schloeder's government class, in which students were required to volunteer for a campaign of their choosing. "Bobby raised his hand and said: 'I see running for local office in Baltimore County is a man named Jervis Finney. Is that any relationship to Reddy Finney? I want to work for him,' " recalls Schloeder, a longtime Democratic activist who remains an Ehrlich family friend.

"That's how he became a Republican.

"He's a hard worker. He's a striver. There's no question about that. He wants to succeed. I don't know if he wanted to volunteer with him because 'I like Mr. Finney' or because 'Mr. Finney is the headmaster. and I want to get in good with him.' I've thought about that a lot over the years."

Ehrlich's headmaster and parents were eager for him to attend Princeton, where Redmond Finney had been a sports legend and an athletic field is named for the Finney family. Ehrlich's father mailed his college applications, then realized he'd misaddressed the one for Princeton, sending it to the wrong school. He panicked. "When I called [Princeton admissions] to tell them what had happened," Ehrlich Sr. told the Jeffersonian, a Baltimore County newspaper, in 1997, they said, " 'Don't worry, he's accepted.' Even without an application! What a lucky boy."

Ehrlich says he believes that his father is "seriously confused" about his admission to Princeton, which he attended on a scholarship based on financial need. But, he acknowledges, "I was a very marginal admission, like a lot of athletes at that time."

Ehrlich says he maintained a B-average at Princeton even though he spent hours on the football field, where he wore Redmond Finney's old number and served as co-captain his senior year.

While wealthier classmates enjoyed weekend ski jaunts, Ehrlich pushed a hoagie cart around campus to earn extra cash, worked construction and scalped tickets to sporting events, which was illegal. A teammate rounded up complimentary tickets to Princeton basketball and hockey games. Ehrlich hawked them, netting the pair as much as $1,500 a game. "I was the face guy," he says.

Ehrlich's scalping career ended with a police sting operation. A police officer told Ehrlich that he was under arrest, but a Princeton proctor rescued him. "The proctor took good care of me," Ehrlich says. "He was a big football fan. He got me out of there."

Ehrlich majored in politics, joined campus Young Republicans and wrote his thesis on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. A 1978 profile of Ehrlich in the Princeton-Brown game program said he planned to become a lawyer and enter Maryland politics.

At Wake Forest University's law school in North Carolina, Ehrlich and his housemate were so broke that they lived without heat their first winter. "We didn't have enough money to get more oil, so we built fires, slept in sleeping bags," says Eddie Booher, now a lawyer in Charlotte. "When we ran out of firewood, we broke limbs off trees."

The law was never Ehrlich's first passion. After graduation, it took him three tries to pass the Maryland Bar exam. But he had a good job waiting, courtesy of Jervis Finney, at the Baltimore firm of Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver.

He typically earned between $60,000 and $80,000 annually as a lawyer, he says. Eventually, he cut a deal with the firm to work part time so he could run for office, like Finney before him. Ehrlich was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates at age 28.

Choosing His Partners

Ehrlich's chance admittance to Gilman set him on a path that might, predictably, have ended with him marrying into a wealthy family. "That would have been too easy for him," Abramson says. "He's spent his life being challenged. He likes the hurly-burly."

At age 35, he married a salesman's daughter with a quick wit, boisterous laugh and casual glamour. Kendel Ehrlich, a former public defender and prosecutor, is as fiercely competitive as her husband. The couple, who have one toddler son and live in a toy-strewn Timonium townhouse, golf together, stay up late watching sports on television and plot political strategy. She says he married her in part because he knew she could handle the demands of political life. "She is camera-ready," the candidate agrees.

In the legislature and in Congress, Ehrlich has been known less as an architect of laws than as a team player adept at forging alliances. Townsend campaign spokesman Peter Hamm dismisses Ehrlich as "something of a do-nothing congressman" because he "can't talk about drafting any major legislation he's particularly fond of and shepherding it through passage."

But the candidate's wife says that Ehrlich simply learned how Congress functions and chose to work quietly with colleagues rather than seek the limelight -- an inclination she traces to his years at Gilman.

"When he went from the West Side to Gilman, a place where none of the other kids looked like him, dressed like him, acted like him, that environment really forced him to sit back and watch and then join in appropriately," she says.

As Ehrlich travels the state in his gubernatorial campaign, his Gilman ties are at least as evident as his Arbutus roots.

Watching Ehrlich work the crowd under the big, white tent at the Green Spring Valley Hounds last month, Jervis Finney looks proud and sounds almost wistful.

For all the Finney family has done for Ehrlich, he hopes Ehrlich can do something far greater in return: capture the Maryland governorship for Republicans.

"That boy," he says, "is our last chance."

Staff writer Joel Achenbach contributed to this report.

A profile of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend appeared yesterday. It can be viewed at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/metro/md/elections/governor.

Before a day on the campaign trail, Rep. Robert Ehrlich Jr. and his wife, Kendel, play with their son, Drew, in their Timonium townhouse.Bobby Ehrlich Jr., at 6 months, with mother Nancy, outside their Arbutus, Md., apartment.A 2-year-old Bobby poses for the family's Christmas card photo.At 1 year old, a bow-tied Bobby cut a dashing figure at a birthday party for his cousin, Ann Marie Seets, at right. Money was tight in the Ehrlich household: His father sold cars on commission, and his mother took in typing.Ehrlich and wife Kendel, a former public defender and prosecutor, greet supporters on primary night in 1994."I am the American dream," Ehrlich said in a 1994 debate.