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Ehrlich Rising

By Russ Smith | Posted 1/26/2005

A little more than a month ago, during a Christmas Eve party at my house, two longtime friends on opposite ends of the political spectrum agreed on one topic: Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s 2006 re-election campaign was in serious trouble. “He hasn’t accomplished anything,” my conservative guest said, “and doesn’t have the luxury of running against [Kathleen Kennedy] Townsend again.”

His sparring partner, a wizened Democratic insider who pre-dates both the governor and Sun columnist Michael Olesker—still feuding—nodded with a grin, and added, “Ehrlich has the worst communications staff I’ve ever seen in Maryland.”

That was a pointed reference to Ehrlich refusing to back down on his clumsy ban of state employees speaking to Olesker and his colleague David Nitkin. I agreed that it was a silly fight to pick and repeated the speculation made in this space on Dec. 1 that the governor and The Sun would resolve the dispute before the new year began.

At least I didn’t make a bet on that bum prediction.

Nevertheless, despite my view that Ehrlich can be political klutz, at the end of January I don’t see how Mayor Martin O’Malley or Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan will win an election against the incumbent. You wouldn’t get that impression by reading The Sun or The Washington Post, which have battered Ehrlich nearly daily on any number of topics, including his (overridden) veto of a flawed medical malpractice bill, the state budget, environmental and education concerns, and partisanship. Olesker wrote on Jan. 11, undoubtedly more in sadness than anger, that Ehrlich’s running a “Campaign That Never Dies,” and has reached new lows in “civility.”

In fact, the only issue on which the Sun’s editorial page has praised Ehrlich (Jan. 17) was on his plan to add restrictions on teenage drivers. This measure isn’t on the grand scale of slot machines or taxes but, like Bill Clinton’s minor goals in his second term (school uniforms, for one), it’s a winner with voters. Who doesn’t agree that Maryland’s roads are safer with fewer intoxicated young men and women behind the wheel?

The Sun’s Michael Hill, in a Jan. 16 Perspective piece, touched on this aspect of Ehrlich’s appeal in comparing him to George W. Bush. Hill’s far from certain it’ll translate into victory, but he writes: “Both are Republicans. Both have an air of youthful vitality. Both have regular-guy personas despite prep school and Ivy League backgrounds. Both have nice-guy images that belie an ideological stubbornness on many political issues. And, perhaps most importantly, both remain popular despite widespread dissatisfaction with the job they are doing.”

Judging by the results of a Potomac Inc. poll released by The Sun on Jan. 14, which shows O’Malley and Ehrlich knotted at 40 percent apiece in a potential contest, the mayor needs to further raise his profile if he’s serious about moving to Annapolis. (It’s unfortunate for O’Malley, and Maryland’s citizens, that Sen. Paul Sarbanes will apparently run again next year, since the GOP has no obvious candidate for that seat.) While it’s true that O’Malley is trailing in Baltimore County—Ehrlich’s base—by only three points, he’s still a relatively unknown quantity outside of the city, and, despite his politically expedient trip to Israel earlier this month (Ehrlich and Duncan have also made the trip), the everyday workload of a mayor is usually more hazardous than that of a governor. The uptick in Baltimore’s homicides this month is proof of that.

Considering Ehrlich’s open warfare with the print media, it’s surprising the poll was so tight. It’s buried in David Nitkin’s Jan. 14 article, but last fall, just before the presidential election, O’Malley was leading Ehrlich by 51-44 percent margin (in an Oct. 29 Ipsos-Public Affairs poll). Back then, Ehrlich was leading Duncan 49-45 percent; in the latest survey, he leads 44-31 percent. Ehrlich’s approval rating has dropped five points to 54 percent in the latest poll, but that’s hardly disastrous.

Additionally, in fund-raising totals released last week, Ehrlich is swamping both O’Malley and Duncan by a 5-to-1 margin, an advantage that’s even more significant if both Democrats decide to challenge the incumbent and deplete funds in a competitive primary. Ehrlich can also expect help from the Republican National Committee, both in statewide appearances by prominent party members and financial assistance. It’s an indication of Ehrlich’s popularity within the GOP that The Wall Street Journal recently championed the governor—in a Dec. 21 editorial and numerous positive mentions in its online Political Journal—citing Maryland’s low unemployment rate and his eagerness to confront a trial lawyer lobby that’s opposed to meaningful tort reform.

Ehrlich has recently taken a more aggressive approach to his duties, and while he’s at loggerheads with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, at least he’s had the gumption (unlike Bush) to actually veto a bill. Voters like that; they also like his slots proposal and, at the risk of repetition, if he’s clever enough to finally get a bill—one O’Malley calls a “gambling gimmick”—passed this year, he’ll have a popular achievement to boast about.

Ehrlich might have to bend a bit, unlike the past two sessions in Annapolis, but as the 2006 gubernatorial election gets closer, maybe he’s had the political epiphany that working harder—in particular, campaigning for fellow Republicans in the state’s House and Senate—pays off.

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