'Rising star' in Md. GOP Conservative: Many Republicans in the state see in Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. a strong candidate to unseat Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. Ehrlich is off and running for 2000.

March 06, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WALDORF -- Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. arrived at a hotel banquet room here with an assured grip and an iron stomach to attend yet another Lincoln Day Dinner, replete with Pledge of Allegiance and overdone chicken, to celebrate Republican politics with people he had never met.

And yet the conservative Republican congressman from Baltimore County was beaming. "You see those new developments?" he asked, referring to the suburban growth that has brought more GOP voters to Southern Maryland. "These are my kind of people."

Ehrlich, 40, can use all the people he can get. He is off and running, with 2 1/2 years to spare, for the U.S. Senate seat held by Paul S. Sarbanes, a four-term Democrat. And Ehrlich, who is seeking re-election this year to the House of Representatives, is working hard to win name recognition throughout the state, and to develop rapport with Republicans unfamiliar with him.

Publicly, the two-term congressman is coy about whether he is seeking Sarbanes' job, although he does not deny it. He says only that he is concentrating on the race in his 2nd District, which includes Harford County and parts of Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. But those close to Ehrlich say they have few doubts about his intentions.

Richard Cross, his press secretary, has meticulously tracked the congressman's visits to Maryland districts other than his own. Last year, Ehrlich made 264 such appearances, many to farmers and small businesses; PTA and teacher associations; construction firms and union chapters; associations of veterans, firefighters and police; and political and charity groups.

Ehrlich, who served in the House of Delegates from 1987 to 1995, has set up a state committee that will function like a political action committee to raise $100,000 to $125,000 for Republican candidates for the General Assembly and other local posts -- an unusual undertaking for a congressman. Such generosity is considered a sure way to foster loyalty among key officials throughout the state.

"We have been surprised at the number of people who have encouraged me to think about" running for statewide office, says Ehrlich, who keeps a full schedule in his home district. "There's a frustration out there, but I wouldn't confine it to Republicans. It includes moderates and right-of-center Democrats."

In recent public remarks, Ehrlich has argued that Republicans need to be smarter about how they run for office and about how they govern. Conservatives, he said in a tenor that rises a bit when he gets excited, need to stem the growth of new government programs without seeming mean-spirited.

In Charles County, at the $40-a-plate event in Waldorf, Ehrlich found a receptive audience of 140 Republicans.

"He's more in tune with what Maryland is now," said William Eckman, the Republican mayor of La Plata for 15 years, who had never met Ehrlich.

Two-term Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who is up for re-election in November, remains unstoppable, according to conventional political wisdom.

But some GOP strategists say the liberal Sarbanes, who defeated an incumbent in 1976 and easily won three subsequent contests, might be vulnerable to a carefully plotted attack. Others suggest that Sarbanes, 65, might retire in 2000. A spokesman for the senator said he will not make any announcement for a while.

Ehrlich raised $216,000 last year toward his as-yet uncontested House race and flirted with entering this year's gubernatorial election until Ellen R. Sauerbrey made it clear she would seek a rematch of the 1994 race she narrowly lost to Parris N. Glendening.

Though his quick-draw smile helped him to develop a reputation in Annapolis as a moderate, Ehrlich has been a consistent conservative vote for his party in Washington, outstripped in his conservatism among Maryland lawmakers only by Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland.

Of late, Ehrlich appears entranced by the power of television.

During a $13-a-plate dinner at a Howard County restaurant with about 40 Asian-American Republicans, Ehrlich said the resilient popularity of President Clinton, despite recent scandals, could be explained by the sincerity he projects on television.

"That tube defines ideas and candidates," he told the rapt crowd, which sat before plates piled high with samosas and tandoori chicken. "We need candidates who are good on TV and have principles. You can have a war hero, be a very fine person and have a great marriage," -- a reference to Bob Dole -- "and it doesn't mean anything if you can't come across on that television."

That the message promotes the messenger was not lost on his listeners.

"I like the way he talks and his philosophy," said Mani Ervin, a real estate agent from Ellicott City who lives in Bartlett's district. "It's about time for Marylanders to have some young senator. I'm getting tired of the old ones who have no ideas. Maybe [Ehrlich] should be running for senator."

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