- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

ANNAPOLIS | While Republican candidates already are expressing interest in challenging Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley next year, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is watching from the sidelines for now.

Nevertheless, the leading state Republican fundraiser is confident Maryland’s first Republican governor in a generation will have a hard time keeping himself off the field.

“I think Bob Ehrlich is going to run,” said Richard Hug, who keeps in touch with Mr. Ehrlich and his past supporters. “He just doesn’t know it yet.”

Mr. Hug said Mr. Ehrlich hasn’t given him a definitive answer, but he thinks Mr. Ehrlich is “looking at the situation very hard.”

“But you never know, and Bob certainly doesn’t want to lose again, although he’s very disappointed with the direction the state of Maryland has gone,” Mr. Hug added.

For now, Mr. Hug thinks Mr. Ehrlich is scouting the political landscape at home and across state lines. His decision may be influenced by how well Republican gubernatorial candidates fare this fall in races in Virginia and New Jersey, where Republicans have led in recent polls.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the former governor is comfortable waiting to make a decision and “taking the temperature in the state.”

But the state’s strong Democratic leanings are hard to overlook, and Mr. Fawell describes the overall situation like this: “What it comes down to is: ‘Can we win?’ ”

“The football player still runs in his veins,” Mr. Fawell said of the former Princeton University linebacker. “He loves to compete. He loves to win, but he also doesn’t run fools’ errands.”

At least two other Maryland Republicans are exploring bids against Mr. O’Malley.

Delegate Patrick L. McDonough, one of the General Assembly’s most colorfully outspoken critics of Mr. O’Malley, has announced he’s considering a run.

During a 2007 special legislative session, Mr. McDonough quipped that Mr. O’Malley “apparently was kidnapped by gypsies” when he had his first chance to take a stab at the state’s budget deficit during his first legislative session as governor.

“Anybody can stick their hand in the cookie jar,” Mr. McDonough said in response to $1.4 billion in tax increases resulting from the special session.

However, Mr. McDonough said he’ll step aside if Mr. Ehrlich commits to the race.

Mike Pappas, a Baltimore County lawyer who is not widely known in the state, has announced he plans to seek the Republican nomination to run against Mr. O’Malley.

Mr. O’Malley currently does not have any primary challengers for the Democratic nomination.

Thomas Russell, Mr. O’Malley’s campaign manager, said it’s too soon to start thinking about who the Republican opponent will be. “It’s all out of our control, so we honestly don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it,” he added.

Whether Mr. Ehrlich will seek a rematch has long been a question mark. Mr. Ehrlich’s victory over then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2002 made him the first Republican governor in Maryland since 1968.

Mr. O’Malley won the 2006 election with 53 percent of the vote to Mr. Ehrlich’s 46 percent after a campaign marked by strident rhetoric and attack ads. Since then, Mr. O’Malley has blamed his predecessor for saddling the state with financial problems that have only worsened in the national recession.

Mr. Ehrlich, for his part, fires back from the airwaves, criticizing the administration’s handling of the state’s finances during a weekly radio program. Mr. Ehrlich also has been a consultant in the Baltimore office of the law firm Womble Carlyle.

Ehrlich supporters downplay the significance of his wait-and-see strategy, pointing out that he waited until March 2002 to formally announce his plans to run against Mrs. Townsend, whom he defeated eight months later. Mr. Fawell said that while some thought Mr. Ehrlich made a mistake to wait so long then, the delay didn’t harm fundraising or vote-getting.

“So, that’s part of the reason why he is so comfortable in taking his time until he arrives at the right decision,” Mr. Fawell said.

Mr. Hug said he thinks Mr. Ehrlich would be able to raise the necessary money for a successful campaign in a rematch.

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