Ehrlich courts business backers

GOP hopeful notes poll showing chances rising

`This race is the shot to win'

Democratic contributors waiting, candidate says

Howard County

May 31, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Boasting of a favorable recent political poll and declaring that key Democratic contributors are waiting with potentially vital cash, Republican congressman and Maryland gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. told a lunchtime business group in Columbia that "this race is the shot to win."

A number of active Democratic contributors are waiting before giving big money to candidates, he said. They have not committed to Democratic front-runner Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

"Democratic money that a Republican needs to win is parked right now," Ehrlich said in his analysis of Townsend's contributors.

"If I had seen Maryland Democrats' names going to her, I probably would not have gotten into this race. I could not have raised enough money," he said.

But much of Townsend's money is coming from outside Maryland, Ehrlich said, which gives him a better chance.

"I don't know anybody in Braintree, [Mass.], or Hollywood," he said.

And if Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, gets into the race, it will mean Ehrlich can win with less money, he said, as the Democrats spend their money fighting each other.

"It would be quite a race. Gee, I hope there's no bloodshed there," he said to laughter at what could be a bitter, divisive primary contest.

Howard County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat who has endorsed Townsend, sat across the table from Ehrlich at the Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Columbia Sheraton hotel.

Ehrlich, who has maintained friendships with Democrats from his eight years in the Maryland House of Delegates before his election to Congress in 1994, is a former Gilman School quarterback, Princeton graduate and lawyer who grew up in Arbutus.

When a cell phone rang loudly just as Ehrlich prepared to speak, he asked, "Is that Parris [Glendening] again?"

Ehrlich got to talk about his favorite recent poll when Howard builder Harry "Chip" Lundy, who accompanied him into the hotel, rose to ask, "How far ahead are you?"

The GOP candidate then revealed to the more than 200 in attendance that a WJLA television poll taken last week of 1,089 likely Maryland voters showed Townsend 5 points ahead of Ehrlich, 48 percent to 43 percent, with 9 percent undecided.

Polls last winter showed Townsend with a 15-point lead against Ehrlich in a head-to-head match-up, though neither was a declared candidate.

On issues, Ehrlich repeated his criticisms of the state's fiscal position, fears echoed by Robey after the speech.

"We have concerns, too. Whoever comes in is going to face a heck of a [financial] challenge," Robey said.

County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat and a devoted party loyalist, said he could agree with Ehrlich on two points -- the need for slot machine gambling at Maryland's ailing race tracks and the need for the proposed Intercounty Connector highway between Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Ehrlich said Maryland faces a $2 billion deficit, including the bill for most of the Thornton Commission plan to aid schools in poorer jurisdictions. The higher cigarette tax approved by the General Assembly this year will pay for only the first six months -- not the two years advertised -- of the commission plan, he said.

"I hope a lot of us start smoking," he said, joking. "It's horrible public policy."

Under Glendening, Ehrlich said, "there's been a cocktail party of spending the last four years, and the bill is coming due. I think I'm looking at the people who are going to pay the bill."

The perilous fiscal situation could also affect his so-far conceptual support for the $3.5 billion maglev train, for which the Baltimore-Washington area is competing with Pittsburgh, he said.

Maryland's share of the project -- which could run an elevated, 240-mph train down the Interstate 95 corridor between Baltimore and Washington -- would be $500 million, and Ehrlich said that "is clearly a problem."

He is intrigued, he said, by a suggestion to devote up to 1 cent of the state's 5 percent sales tax to building the state's transportation trust fund.

In the end, Ehrlich said, he expects a close race for governor -- a race he believes he can win even in heavily Democratic-voting Maryland.

"If you think we need a change in direction, think about another alternative," he said.

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