- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2003

Maryland Republicans, fresh from taking the governor’s mansion, are looking for a marquee name to put up against one of the state’s most popular Democrats — Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

Among their unlikely dream candidates to face Miss Mikulski next year: Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, former Prince George’s County Executive Wayne K. Curry (a Democrat) and the state’s first lady, Kendel Ehrlich.

The state Republican Party has set its sights on unseating Miss Mikulski and thinks a strong candidate with a well-run campaign could win in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans in registered voters by 2-1.

“We definitely want a strong candidate because Barbara Mikulski has been a very weak senator, one of the worst we’ve had in a long time and with a long track record of voting against working families,” said Eric Sutton, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. “She is like antique furniture in an attic.”

Mr. Sutton declined to discuss which candidates Republican leaders were seriously considering, but said the party leaders are conducting interviews and would have an announcement in the next two months.

However, the party chairman confirmed that Republicans are considering Potomac businessman Joshua Rales, a real estate investor who has contributed to Republican candidates such as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Mr. Steele has said he would not run for the Senate, at least until completing his term as lieutenant governor.

“He has no plans to run for the Senate at this time,” Republican spokeswoman Regan Hopper said. “He has completely ruled this out now.”

Still, party members view Mr. Steele as clearly among the best candidates to challenge Miss Mikulski, who has won three straight races and is in her 17th year as senator. She won the last election against perennial candidate Ross Z. Pierpont, an independent, with 71 percent of the vote.

“Michael Steele would present an excellent challenge because he is well-versed in the Republican Party principles,” said Michael Malone, chairman of Anne Arundel County Republicans.

“The state is becoming more Republican and looking at a more fiscally restrictive government, whereas Mikulski belongs more to the old school of tax and spend,” he said.

A senior Republican politician who asked not be identified said Miss Mikulski would be a tough opponent for any Republican.

“Michael [Steele] is as strong a candidate as we could muster,” the politician said, adding that Mr. Curry and Mrs. Ehrlich would be good candidates, “but it would be hard for the wife of a sitting governor to run for office.”

Said Mr. Sutton: “Kendel would be a dynamic candidate, but I doubt she would run. She is committed to helping her husband have a successful term. But we would love anyone with the name Ehrlich to run.”

A spokeswoman for Mrs. Ehrlich, a former public defender, said “no discussions of that nature” had taken place between the first lady and the Republican Party.

Democratic Party spokesman David Paulson said they are not concerned about a challenge from Mr. Steele.

“I don’t think he will be a formidable candidate … 25 percent of Marylanders don’t even know who Michael Steele is,” he said.

Mr. Paulson also said Mr. Steele’s anti-death-penalty stance would keep away Republican voters.

Mr. Curry did not return calls, but Democratic Party officials said they saw no chance of him changing parties, then running.

“I don’t think Wayne is going to fall for that,” said Isiah Leggett, chairman of the state Democratic Party. “He is a Democrat and he wouldn’t win if he changed parties because a majority of African-Americans are going to stay with Mikulski.”

He said the party was not worried about a challenge to Miss Mikulski because she has vast support in the state.

“She will win, and she deserves to win,” he said. “We are prepared to fend off any challenge.”

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., a Democrat, said Miss Mikulski is “the most popular politician” in the state.

“Michael Steele is a very likeable person, and it is unfair to him to ask him to beat Senator Mikulski,” he said. “It is a tough project and even unfair to ask him.”

Political analyst Thomas F. Schaller said a formidable candidate, vigorous fund raising and campaigning, and support from President Bush could help the Republican challenge.

“But it would still be a long shot,” said Mr. Schaller, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

He also said Mr. Steele fulfilled the requirements to compete against Miss Mikulski, “but I don’t know if he’d make a good senator.”

Mr. Sutton said Republicans have failed to beat Miss Mikulski because campaigns have been underfunded and poorly run.

However, Republicans are riding a wave of success after winning the governor’s seat in the 2002 election, and the party has won more voters in recent years.

“Marylanders are gaining more trust in voting for the Republican Party,” Mr. Sutton said. “The state is becoming more and more Republican, and we already have 20 out of the 24 counties. … We are the party now that is more in line with working families. Seniors are turning our way rapidly and Hispanics and African-Americans are looking at us.”

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