Ehrlich's low profile gets mixed response

Some Republicans irked, but experts praise strategy

August 17, 2002|By David Nitkin and Tim Craig | David Nitkin and Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is in the news almost every day, pushing policy proposals in her campaign for governor or fielding questions about a federal investigation into an office she oversees.

So where's Bob Ehrlich?

The expected Republican nominee for governor has been far less visible than Townsend of late, with low-key appearances and few grand pronouncements.

Some fellow Republicans are grumbling about the strategy, saying he ought to be out among voters more and promoting his vision for Maryland. But others maintain that the congressman is running a smart campaign as he marshals strength for a final fall push.

On the Eastern Shore, some GOP politicians say they haven't seen as much of Ehrlich as they would like. "I wish he were here more, on the boardwalk, shaking hands," said Worcester County Commissioner Louise L. Gulyas.

"We get so many people from the western part of the state vacationing here. I still think a weekend here can't hurt," Gulyas said.

But many political analysts say Ehrlich is wise to spend the summer months holding fund-raisers - he has 30 this month, he says - and charting a course for the final weeks of the election.

"Most of the publicity has been aimed at Townsend and some of the troubles overhanging her campaign," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a Bethesda-based polling firm.

"So why get in the middle of those difficulties? It is probably smart to stay reasonably low-profile, particularly if you are trying to evolve a strong game plan for the fall," Haller said.

Ehrlich's quietude comes as recent polls show him pulling nearly even in the race for governor, a startling development in heavily Democratic Maryland. In January, Townsend held a 15-point lead in a poll for The Sun.

Since then, she has angered some Democrats by selecting a former Republican as a running mate and has been dogged by questions about a federal probe into grants distributed by the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention. Many Democrats are pointing fingers at Townsend's campaign chairman, Alan Fleischmann, calling him overly protective and inexperienced at running a statewide race.

If Townsend's campaign is wobbling, isn't the time right for Ehrlich to deliver a few haymakers? Shouldn't he be explaining how he would fix the state's juvenile justice mess and solve its budget woes?

Ehrlich said he has no need to change his strategy to exploit the weaknesses of his opponent. "We have our plan. We have our schedule. We follow it every day, religiously," he said. "It's the way I tried cases. It's the way I played football. It's the way I run campaigns."

Congressional duties

At the same time, he concedes that he hasn't been as visible as some would like.

His position in Congress - which began a monthlong recess July 27 - kept him close to home, he said. He has been loath to miss votes, fearful that absences will be turned against him during the general election.

"I'm not going to be able to get around as much as Kathleen Townsend," he said in an interview this week.

Though he has made himself available for radio talk shows and television interviews, Ehrlich has done little else to promote his underdog candidacy since formally entering the race last March, some observers say.

His campaign has been short on specifics but heavy on rhetoric as he challenges Townsend to a series of debates and accuses her and Gov. Parris N. Glendening of mismanaging state finances.

A lead poisoning prevention plan released a few days ago - just the second policy proposal of his campaign - contained errors and appeared hastily arranged. He had planned to unveil a juvenile justice plan this week but on Thursday said the initiative would be delayed. His staff, he said, lost time rushing to meet a campaign finance filing deadline.

He will reveal his thoughts on how to close a $900 million state budget gap some time after the Sept. 10 primary, he said.

As they revel in his rise in the polls, some Ehrlich supporters are complaining that they haven't seen enough of their candidate.

An editorial in the Easton Star-Democrat took him to task last month. Coverage of Townsend's many visits to the Eastern Shore has been annoying conservative-leaning readers, the editors wrote, while Ehrlich hasn't been seen.

Carol L. Hirschburg, a veteran Republican political consultant, said Ehrlich need not spend much time in areas rich with GOP voters even if his absence irks some.

"In a statewide campaign, the people from your own party always want to see you," Hirschburg said. "However, when you have to spend a huge amount of time with your base, you are in trouble. And your base really has to understand that."

Ehrlich's approach

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