- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 8, 2010

The rematch is on.

Speaking in the place where the election likely will be won or lost, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. kicked off his campaign to reclaim the Maryland governorship from Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley in voter-rich Montgomery County, where Mr. Ehrlich will need the support of roughly 100,000 independent suburban voters to win in this heavily Democratic state.

The 52-year-old Mr. Ehrlich, who lost a bid for a second term to Mr. O’Malley four years ago, made clear in his announcement that he plans to win the support of independents, Republican loyalists and others across Maryland by appealing to their dissatisfaction with higher taxes, higher unemployment and a large state deficit.

“Enough of the schoolyard trash-talk about unemployment. We’ll debate. We’ll fight. We’re going to win,” he told hundreds of supporters at the Rockville Town Center. “They raised taxes, and we cut them. They spent beyond their means, and we spent within a budget. They killed jobs, and we tried to create them.”

Mr. Ehrlich told the crowd in the Washington suburb that he will create more jobs, repeal an increase in the Maryland sales tax, fix the budget and double the number of state charter schools.

Though Mr. O’Malley, 47, has yet to announce formally a re-election bid, the one-time Baltimore mayor has already challenged Mr. Ehrlich to a moderated radio debate on the Republican’s own radio show. Mr. Ehrlich responded by saying he wants a one-on-one discussion of the issues facing voters.

That pollsters give Mr. Ehrlich a fighting chance at an upset shows the transformation of the political landscape in the past two years and the rising hopes of the Republican Party nationally. Mr. Ehrlich, elected in 2002 as Maryland’s first GOP governor since Spiro Agnew, has previously expressed doubts that a Republican could win a statewide race in the reliably blue state.

Both Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. O’Malley are fiercely competitive and have similar combative personalities.

Mr. Ehrlich is a Baltimore-area lawyer and a former Princeton University linebacker. He dismissed questions Wednesday about a “grudge match” with Mr. O’Malley, noting that his last such match was in middle school, “but I won.”

Mr. O’Malley, a lawyer and high school athlete from the Montgomery County, still enjoys lifting weights and showing off his biceps when playing guitar with his Celtic rock band.

The governor, speaking to reporters in Annapolis after the announcement, attacked Mr. Ehrlich’s record in office, saying the Republican had raised fees, property taxes and college tuition by “an astronomical amount.”

“People have an opportunity to look at those choices that two different men made while they were in office and decide for themselves,” said Mr. O’Malley, according to the Associated Press.

The most recent Rasmussen Reports survey - taken nearly two months ago - showed Mr. O’Malley leading by 6 percentage points.

Mr. O’Malley has benefited from Maryland’s 7.7 percent unemployment rate, below the national average of 9.7 percent. And he aggressively cut state jobs to keep down the state’s deficit, despite having to increase taxes.

Still, the Rasmussen survey found Mr. Ehrlich leads among voters not affiliated with either major party, 52 percent to 36 percent.

Fundraising could play a critical role, with the governor’s $5.7 million campaign account dwarfing the $200,000 raised to date by Mr. Ehrlich. Democrats are also trying to link Mr. Ehrlich to his one-time lieutenant governor and now the embattled chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael S. Steele.

Ehrlich campaign officials think they will have the resources to compete even in a difficult economy, benefiting in part from the former governor’s long track record and high name recognition.

“It’s a different economy than before, but I feel we’ll have enough money to get the message out,” said Ehrlich spokesman Andy Barth.

Mr. Barth said he hopes the problems surrounding Mr. Steele and the RNC, which raises money for national races, will not harm the Ehrlich campaign.

“We’re our own operation,” he said.

In Maryland, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by 2-to-1. The roughly 100,00 independents in Montgomery County represent about a quarter of the party’s voters in Maryland.

Much of the 2006 race was centered on Baltimore and surrounding counties. But political analysts say the rematch likely will focus on capturing the suburban independent vote and focusing on Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

The Ehrlich campaign is bolstered by an anti-incumbent mood in the electorate and a string of impressive GOP triumphs in races in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts.

“But that wave has diminished,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “It’s going to be tough in Maryland.”

Mr. Sabato said Mr. Ehrlich’s best hope is for another downturn in the economy as Election Day nears.

“That would be a disaster for any incumbent,” he said.

Warren Manison, of Potomac, Md., was among those at the announcement speech Wednesday.

“I’m tired of seeing O’Malley raise taxes,” said Mr. Manison, wearing a T-shirt with a picture of George W. Bush and the words “Miss Me Now?” on the front. “It’s the same way in the national government. You cannot spend in a deficit. You have to spend within your means.”

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