IN HIS PUCKISH moments, the mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley, sometimes refers to the congressman from Newt Gingrich Land, Robert Ehrlich, as "my evil twin." In his current disappointment, he refers to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend only with reluctance.
As he withdrew from the governor's race last week, O'Malley hit one of the grace notes of his political life. He chose a city instead of merely a career. Baltimore's needs were seen as greater than his own ambitions. For the moment, O'Malley silences those who found his abilities undercut by too much personal calculation.
But now, as he decides how much muscle to throw into somebody else's race for governor, he has to choose between what he clearly sees as the lesser of two evils. He can back Townsend with a show of public enthusiasm - or, by implication, send a signal that maybe Ehrlich isn't so bad a choice.
O'Malley says he wants someone who will look out for his people - not just Baltimore, but poor people, communities in trouble, all those groups having a tough go of it while government seems not to notice.
On this, he seems to make no distinction between candidates - and parties. He must be kidding. We can blame the Democrats for plenty - but not a failure to throw money at things. We can credit the Republicans with plenty - but not with any generosity to cities, or to the poor, or with any sensitivity about race.
This isn't news to a single soul out there, is it?
As Kathleen Kennedy Townsend struggles to find her voice, Robert Ehrlich attempts to disguise his political past. Ehrlich is one of the Newt Gingrich coattail boys, that whole gaggle of right-wingers who burst onto the national scene early in the past decade and yanked all sense of political moderation from the Republican Party.
Many, including Gingrich, have been driven from public office; but some, including Ehrlich, now find it necessary to dodge some of the after-effects.
Ehrlich now runs for office in the entire state of Maryland, which is known for voting moderate to liberal. He has not, and some people have noticed this. Last week, there were broadcast advertisements from gun-control advocates blasting him for past votes.
Ehrlich's response? He called the ads "political." Gosh, in the middle of a political campaign, who would have figured? He blamed the Democrat Townsend, saying that her camp was behind the ads. Both the Democrats and the gun-control people denied this, but it gave Ehrlich a little breathing room. It momentarily changed the subject from his gun record, which is dreadful.
He has voted against a ban on Saturday night specials. And voted against a ban on assault weapons. He has voted 100 percent for the National Rifle Association boys who have bankrolled him. Neither gun-control advocates nor anyone aware of the daily bloodshed caused by guns needs a nod from Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to find this appalling.
Particularly the mayor of a city with hundreds of shootings a year.
Or a mayor who needs money for public schools. What's Ehrlich's record? He has voted against public school funding, against Head Start money, against the school lunch program. In fact, in one of the early bully-boy gestures of the Gingrich crowd, Ehrlich voted to eliminate the Department of Education.
O'Malley wants the next governor to spend more money for drug treatment. The Republican approach to drugs has been reduced to a single word: imprisonment. O'Malley wants money for downtown redevelopment and the new biotech efforts. The day after the mayor's withdrawal, Townsend gave public support for all those things.
Will Ehrlich do the same? His party has spent the past several decades showing contempt for cities, and sheer obliviousness to their problems.
This is what O'Malley has to consider in his coolness toward Townsend.
Everybody understands his misgivings. He sees a woman of modest public accomplishment catapulted to office on the strength of money and a famous maiden name. That's not the American model. The treasured American model happens to be Ehrlich's: a man up from working-class roots, a tough kid who studied and played ball well enough to win a first-class education and worked hard enough to make it pay off.
Last week, when Martin O'Malley announced he wouldn't run for governor, he deplored a "vacuum of leadership in the Democratic Party." But if he really believes there is a difference in political parties - the Democrats putting government to work, the Republicans saying there's too much government in our lives and they need to back off - then his choice is clear.
But his sense of enthusiasm is not.