- The Washington Times - Monday, April 8, 2002

ANNAPOLIS The key battle for Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in his bid to become Maryland's first Republican governor in decades is the struggle for the state's political and geographic middle.
Only about 30 percent of Maryland's registered voters are Republicans, and the party's highest percentage is in the state's western and eastern reaches.
So, like the last Republican governor Spiro T. Agnew, another Baltimore County resident who ran as a centrist Mr. Ehrlich will have to win with independents and Democrats from the state's center and the Washington suburbs.
A poll earlier this year suggested that Republicans could gain a foothold again. The poll found voters almost equally split on whether Democrats or Republicans would be better able to handle the state's problems.
Although she has not announced, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the early front-runner.
Both Mr. Ehrlich and Mrs. Townsend say they stand for fighting crime, improving education and solving the state's transportation problems, particularly gridlock in the Washington-Baltimore region.
Last week, they both spoke in Baltimore of the need to end drug trafficking and its devastating effects during an event to marshal citywide efforts.
They were invited to the event held at Israel Baptist Church by Mayor Martin O'Malley, the wild card who has lowered the city's once-intractable homicide rate and is considering entering the governor's race.
Some Democrats are pleading with Mr. O'Malley to challenge Mrs. Townsend in the primary; others want him to remain Baltimore's mayor, a job he has held since 1999.
Mr. O'Malley must decide by the July 1 filing deadline, and what he does could rearrange strategies for both Mr. Ehrlich and Mrs. Townsend.
Ten weeks of fighting before the Sept. 10 primary could lower the Democratic nominee's popularity and drain campaign coffers. (In fact, a deep divide in the Democratic Party in 1962 helped make Mr. Agnew the first elected Republican Baltimore County executive in the 20th century.) Mr. Ehrlich could use the time to solidify support among conservative Republicans before shifting his focus to Democrats and independents, who make up 56 percent and 13 percent of registered voters, respectively.
But with Mrs. Townsend the presumptive nominee, the challenge for both campaigns is how to distinguish a favorite son of Baltimore's lunch-bucket suburbs, who earned a degree from Princeton University on scholarship, from a woman whose family is political royalty, yet who can speak, as she did at the Baltimore anti-drug event, about losing a brother to a drug overdose.
Mrs. Townsend the eldest daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy has enjoyed eight years in the spotlight, yet as governor-in-waiting has not had to stand center stage when the heat is on.
Critics say the people who work for Mrs. Townsend insulate her from public challenges even over-abuse in the juvenile justice system that is part of her portfolio.
Mr. Ehrlich joked recently that he was ready to go toe-to-toe anytime with Mrs. Townsend's chief of staff, Alan Fleischman, who critics say speaks for her too often.
However, her well-choreographed appearances with labor leaders, firefighters and other groups that praise her leadership have left no doubt that she plans to take over when Gov. Parris N. Glendening leaves office in January.
Mr. Ehrlich who has never lost an election, despite entering each race as the underdog has always enjoyed the support of Democrats who respond to his hard work and humble roots.
He says the state badly needs to focus on funding core services such as public education, Medicaid and providing mental health and drug treatment.
"I've never been anti-government," said Mr. Ehrlich, who served in the state legislature for eight years before being elected to Congress in 1994.
"I was taught, in this place, you pay your bills, you balance your budget," Mr. Ehrlich told backers when he announced his candidacy on March 25 from the front stoop of his parents' tiny Arbutus row house.
It was a clear echo of accusations that the Glendening-Townsend administration has squandered state resources and flip-flopped on issues to ensure political advantage at the expense of the state and its residents.
"We promise you real debate around the state about real issues that impact real people," said Mr. Ehrlich.
Influential Maryland Democrats, and gun-control and abortion-rights groups, are working to paint Mr. Ehrlich as a conservative wolf in sheep's clothing. That characterization is based largely on his votes against a federal requirement for background checks at gun shows and for a ban on partial-birth abortion, although Mr. Ehrlich has voted for bills supporting abortion rights.
Mr. Ehrlich says his stances are centrist and reflect the views of most Marylanders.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, has accused Mr. Ehrlich of running from his own record. Mr. Hoyer said it is hypocritical for Mr. Ehrlich to accuse the Glendening-Townsend administration of mortgaging Maryland's future even though in the Republican-controlled U.S. House Mr. Ehrlich voted for the Bush tax cut, which Democrats say will bring back a federal deficit.
Mr. Agnew, as vice president, cut a more conservative figure in Washington than in Annapolis, where he had won passage of a fair-housing law, expanded anti-poverty programs and introduced a graduated income tax.


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