Ehrlich drawing national GOP help

Governors group offers support

Bush expected to visit city next month

Election 2002

September 21, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

With Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. rising in the polls, national Republicans are planning to pour major resources into Maryland's governor's race with the aim of, as one Republican put it, finishing off the Kennedys "once and for all."

"He is one of our superstars," said Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland, chairman of the Republican Governors Association. "He is a tremendous candidate, he has a great record and we are really fortunate to have him running."

Just a few months ago, national Republicans viewed Ehrlich as a long shot against Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. But now, Rowland says, electing Ehrlich is one of the association's "top two priorities" this year. "We will commit considerable resources to helping his campaign," Rowland said yesterday in an interview.

The Townsend campaign said it is not worried about any influx of Republican money.

"We always knew that the conservatives would wage all-out war to try yet again to capture the state of Maryland," said Peter Hamm, a Townsend spokesman. "Let's make this a national race, let's make this a national referendum on their policies and our policies. Bring it on."

Democrats say they will match Republican efforts. Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said he will not let the Republican governors' group outperform him on his home turf.

"We've raised somewhere between $8.5 million and $10 million, and we'll be allocating that based on the competitiveness and need," Glendening said. "Certainly, as chair of the DGA, Maryland will get a significant portion of this as needed."

Ehrlich's status as a darling of national Republicans comes as two new polls show him with a slight lead and as Townsend's campaign struggles to right itself.

Republicans are trying to hold onto their slim majority of 27 governorships.

Out of the 36 elections for governor this year, Republicans are incumbents in 23, while Democrats are incumbents in 13.

Republican groups had hoped to stop Democratic gains by spending money to help gubernatorial candidates in Pennsylvania, Michigan, California, Illinois, Kansas and New Mexico.

In all those states, however, the Democratic candidate has opened up a respectable lead in the polls, causing the GOP governors group to look for victories elsewhere.

Glendening predicted Democrats will gain from seven to nine governorships.

Besides the contest in Maryland, Rowland said, the race in Iowa is the other top priority this year. Rowland said the GOP governors association is also closely following the contest in Alabama.

"It is turning out different than a lot of people thought," said Charlie Black, a Republican consultant in Washington. "You would not have had Maryland on the list of competitive states earlier this year."

Black said Ehrlich has "created a buzz" in Republican circles in Washington because his race is featured almost daily in the capital's media.

Rowland declined to say what his association - which expects to raise $25 million this year - plans to do on behalf of Ehrlich.

The group typically offers money and organizational support to certain Republican gubernatorial candidates. The money, called soft money, is often routed through the state party. Ehrlich can also expect help from the Republican National Committee, an official there said yesterday.

"What it means is that Bob Ehrlich will have the assistance of his party against the nation's strongest fund-raising machine, and that is the Kennedy clan," said Dan Ronayne, an RNC spokesman. "Nationally, folks are beginning to see this latest generation of Kennedys may be finished off politically once and for all."

When Ehrlich learned yesterday of Rowland's plans to help him, the congressman let out a yelp and high-fived a staffer.

"I think this means cash," Ehrlich said after a speech on health care at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Ehrlich said that the offer proves he has momentum and noted that officials with the GOP governors group dismissed him earlier this year when he sought their help. "We wanted to know if they were going to play," Ehrlich said. "It was not an excited response."

Since then, Ehrlich has nearly caught up to Townsend's once formidable fund-raising advantage and has been drawing national attention. Several out-of-state newspapers have written about the race. President Bush is expected to travel to Baltimore next month to raise money for Ehrlich. Other administration officials and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani may also campaign for Ehrlich next month.

Democrat Townsend is expecting help from prominent figures in her party, too. Former President Bill Clinton is to campaign for her next month, and actor Martin Sheen and her uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, have campaigned on her behalf.

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