- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 21, 2009

It was just a chicken dinner fundraiser for a small Republican club in northeast Baltimore, but former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. knew what everyone in the room wanted him to talk about.

So in the middle of prepared remarks about the need for Republican activism in the face of the “hurtful agenda” of Democrats in Annapolis and Washington, Mr. Ehrlich slipped in a reference to his own future political ambitions.

“If we can’t get excited about this, we ought to quit, we ought to go home right now and take the bumper stickers off,” he said. “Actually, you really can’t get the Ehrlich bumper stickers off because they never come off - but why would you want to take them off, eh?”

The crowd roared.

It was a small bone to throw the legions of Republican activists and legislators who yearn to see a rematch between Mr. Ehrlich and his successor - Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley - who defeated Mr. Ehrlich by more than six percentage points in the 2006 general election.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Ehrlich said plainly that he has no intention of running, at least not yet.

“Honestly, it will be a very tough call for us,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “It’s about trying to figure out if you can win a race, and that’s just not knowable right now.”

But that might change since Mr. O’Malley has begun to kick-start his own re-election campaign, sending out fundraising letters, setting lofty goals that extend beyond his current term, and making a habit of callling out the failures of his predecessor, under the subtle guise of “the previous administration.”

“We find it comical, because it started Day One. The fascinating thing is, during the first campaign they talked about George Bush, and they only started talking about me after the election,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “It’s kind of weird juxtaposition.”

“It’s brought to me quite frequently, but I … don’t think it’s to try to compare, because I don’t think they would enjoy those results,” he said. “I’d say it’s to try and divert attention.”

Though he may be silent on his intentions for now, that has not slowed speculation on his future.

Supporters often tout the fact that he left office with close to a 60 percent job-approval rating, and boast that he helped generate a $2 billion budget surplus, only to have it evaporate owing to heavy spending on the part of Mr. O’Malley and other Maryland Democrats, coupled with the nationwide economic recession.

“He put our fiscal house in order,” said state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, Harford Republican. “He was a governor who provided leadership when the state needed it most. And I’ve got to tell you, I personally think our state needs this kind of leadership again.”

However, there is the fact that Maryland has been a Democratic bastion for a long time. In 2002, Mr. Ehrlich and then-Lt. Gov. Michael Steele became the first Republicans in Maryland to win their respective offices in a generation. By 2006, however, Maryland’s overwhelmingly Democratic electorate and strong disapproval of the national policies of then-President Bush all but doomed the party’s chances to retain the state’s top posts. The strong Democratic tide has continued to surge, culminating with 61 percent of Marylanders voting for Barack Obama for president in 2008.

That has not stopped Mr. Ehrlich from speaking urgently on behalf of his party. The recent Baltimore dinner was part of a series of speaking engagements to raise his public profile and help Republican causes and candidates. Earlier this month, he attended the Maryland GOP’s 19th annual Red, White and Blue Dinner, a major fundraiser held at the BWI Airport Marriott. On Tuesday, Mr. Ehrlich took to the national stage by appearing on conservative commentator Sean Hannity’s program on the Fox News Channel, and on Wednesday he spoke at a fundraiser for Sen. Alex X. Mooney, Frederick Republican.

With Maryland Republicans in desperate need of a familar face to take on Mr. O’Malley, now may be the right time for Mr. Ehrlich to break his silence on whether he wants his old job back.

The only Republican to announce an official challenge for Maryland’s top post is Baltimore County Republican parliamentarian Mike Pappas, a former paramedic with no formal experience in state politics. Mr. O’Malley, meanwhile, has already put himself on the campaign stump.

Chris Cavey, chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Party, said that if Mr. Ehrlich decides to run, he would face very little opposition from within the party rank and file.

“If he chose to come out of the box, he could do it very easily. Bob has a giant leg up against anyone in the GOP,” he said.

Analysts say that while the Republican nomination is Mr. Ehrlich’s for the taking, it may also represent the only chance the party has to defeat Mr. O’Malley.

“The state of competition in Maryland is pretty sad. There’s really only one Maryland Republican that can make the race competitive, and that’s Bob Ehrlich,” said James Gimpel, a political science professor at the University of Maryland.

Speculation on Mr. Ehrlich’s future also comes as Republican candidates in the region gain traction for the off-year gubernatorial elections in November.

In New Jersey, Republican nominee and former U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie leads Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine by 10 percentage points, according to a poll released by Quinnipiac University on June 10.

In Virginia, Republican nominee Robert F. McDonnell has nearly $4.9 million in cash on hand for the general election, and has outpaced his Democratic rival, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, in campaign fundraising, although Mr. Deeds has surged ahead in recent polls.

Mr. Ehrlich said there are many factors that will influence his decision to run, but some things are more telling than others.

“What brings me back is that we lost with an approval rating of close to 60 percent, and that gives you pause. It really helps,” he said.

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