- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2002

ANNAPOLIS U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland Republican, is focusing his efforts on a run for governor rather than re-election to Congress.
About 40 of the 45 fund-raisers Mr. Ehrlich has held since September have been for the gubernatorial race, as are the majority of the 53 events scheduled through April, said Paul Schurick, his top political aide.
Although the would-be GOP gubernatorial candidate hasn't hit the $2 million goal he hoped to reach by now, he has raised close to $1.5 million, with more coming in rapidly, Mr. Schurick said.
He'll need to raise plenty to match Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, front-runner for the Democratic nomination.
Still, a poll released yesterday showed Mr. Ehrlich's chances in a race against Mrs. Townsend, daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, have improved.
In a statewide survey of 833 registered voters likely to vote in November, 35 percent said they would vote for Mr. Ehrlich. Mrs. Townsend polled 50 percent, and 15 percent were undecided.
And while Mrs. Townsend slipped slightly in every demographic subgroup except independents, Mr. Ehrlich's support grew among whites, women and Democrats.
"Obviously, we're going in the right direction," Mr. Ehrlich said yesterday.
"The biggest question mark is our Republican base. But my strength has always been crossover appeal, and we are going to fight this fight on that territory."
Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications conducted the telephone survey, which has a 3.5 percentage point margin of error, between Jan. 9 and 12.
Mrs. Townsend held a 23 percentage point advantage over Mr. Ehrlich in a Gonzales/Arscott poll taken in September.
While 5 percent of voters polled last week didn't know Mrs. Townsend, 31 percent didn't know Mr. Ehrlich.
Maryland House Republican Whip James F. Ports Jr. said he is encouraged by the fact that among the 69 percent of voters who said they recognized Mr. Ehrlich's name, favorable opinions of him outnumbered unfavorable ones more than 3 to 1.
While 95 percent of voters recognized Mrs. Townsend, 46 percent had favorable opinions of her and 26 percent unfavorable.
The poll also showed that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley seen as the Democrat with the best chance of challenging Mrs. Townsend for their party's nomination has lost popularity even as he has boosted his name recognition.
Mr. Ehrlich said that a growing number of Democrats whom he declined to identify are helping him. Some may be legislators frustrated with their party over redistricting. Some likely are Democrats that share his concerns about public safety, fiscal management and traffic gridlock.
He also said that he would consider naming a Democratic running mate and Cabinet members.
"This race is all about moderate Democrats," said Mr. Ehrlich, acknowledging that, in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, he will need help to win.
It's a strategy that helped Democrat Mark R. Warner become governor in Republican-dominated Virginia.
Mr. Ehrlich said he always has had to draw Democrats in his district to hold onto his seat in Congress.
Meanwhile, Republicans who see Mr. Ehrlich as their best chance for electing their first governor in Maryland since Spiro Agnew in the 1960s say they are convinced he will run.
They also say they can unite most of the party behind him, although some conservatives don't like his support for abortion rights and limited gun control.
A deficit estimated at $521 million for the next fiscal year has made the Democrats vulnerable to long-time warnings that Gov. Parris N. Glendening would spend the state into debt.
Supporters say they believe Mr. Ehrlich's fiscal conservatism and centrist positions on many social issues are good fits with many Maryland voters.
A Baltimore Sun poll also showed that support for Mr. Glendening and his Democratic heir-apparent, Mrs. Townsend, is slipping.
The Sun poll, conducted between Jan. 2 and 4, 10 months before the election, also showed Mrs. Townsend ahead of Mr. Ehrlich by 15 percentage points in a race for governor.
In the Sun poll, which surveyed 800 registered voters by telephone, 14 percent of voters were undecided. That poll also had a 3.5 percentage point margin of error.
Maryland Democratic leaders cite the defeat of Republicans in Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races as evidence that, despite President Bush's popularity, Republican candidates can't expect much of a ride on his coattails. But some Ehrlich supporters see encouragement in those upsets particularly in light of the Glendening administration's declining popularity.
According to Mr. Schurick, it shows that when there's discontent, "if you present a credible alternative to the status quo, you can win."
So what is keeping Mr. Ehrlich from announcing now?
"We're in the final stages of an 18-month process and very close to a final decision and announcement," Mr. Schurick said.
The wait is really all about timing the announcement to maximum advantage, observers and sources in the GOP say.
Within his party, Mr. Ehrlich and his supporters are working hard to persuade conservatives to unite with centrists to mount a winning campaign. Unless they do, Mr. Ehrlich said last week, Maryland's Republican party is teetering on "the brink of irrelevancy."
Mr. Glendening is expected to present a proposal for new congressional districts next week, and state and national political leaders will be watching to see what he does to tip Maryland's 4-4 congressional split and potentially the U.S. House of Representatives majority in favor of the Democrats.
But Mr. Ehrlich says the map will not affect his decision about whether to run for governor.

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