Ehrlich focus on positions erratic

Unevenness is by design, not by mistake, he says

Help from media noted

Election 2002

October 04, 2002|By Sarah Koenig and Tim Craig | Sarah Koenig and Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said he would present a health care plan last month, but he didn't. In July, he said he had memos that proved what he called falsified juvenile crime statistics related to his opponent, but they never came to light. He promised to unveil a juvenile justice plan more than six weeks ago, but the latest deadline - yesterday - came and went with no plan.

Ehrlich also enlisted Hoke L. Smith, a former president of Towson University, months ago to write his position paper on higher education. But Smith said he has yet to finish it.

Ehrlich's gubernatorial campaign has looked somewhat disorganized. The candidate concedes that the rollout of his policy statements has been erratic. Compared with Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Ehrlich has released fewer and less-comprehensive policy positions.

But Ehrlich says the uneven pacing of his policy announcements is by design, the result of good news, not mistakes.

"The reason that we took our foot off the pedal to some extent was the incredible amount of earned media we got," Ehrlich said when asked about his policy delays.

Newspapers and television have explained much of his platform, he said, making it unnecessary for him to present his positions on a precise schedule - or at all.

Ehrlich said he also thinks that this gubernatorial election, unlike past ones, rests almost equally on "tangibles," such as solving the budget shortfall, and on "intangibles," such as character. His stated message - "change, leadership, competence" - clearly taps the latter.

His three TV advertisements, which portray him as a moderate Republican, a husband and father concerned about education, and someone who would change the culture in Annapolis, convey more about Ehrlich the man than Ehrlich the governor.

Towson University professor Martha Joynt Kumar says it might be smart strategy for Ehrlich to avoid too many policy specifics.

"It's always a risk taking policy positions, because you're going to offend people," she said. "Personality and governance - I think those are more important in governor's races. And you see that playing out here. The context about [Townsend] is: Could she really govern? How would she do it? What kind of leadership would she provide?"

Many voters say they like Ehrlich not because he wants to bring slot machines to Maryland or because he opposes the death-penalty moratorium, but because he seems like a decent guy.

"It'll probably be him," said Joanne Metz, 62, of Cumberland when asked who will get her vote. What she knows about Ehrlich she has learned from television advertisements and from reading the local paper. But when she talks about him, she doesn't mention his platform. "It seems like he's pretty honest and really forthcoming," she said.

Republican strategist Kevin Igoe said Metz's response is common. "I think it is primarily about personalities right now," he said.

"The media pays a lot more attention to the depth of the policy discussion than the average voter. Some voters want to see detail and will seek out policy papers, but let's face it, most voters get their impression whether they like this guy or this person based on a 30-second television commercial."

Igoe and others say that what works for most voters probably isn't good enough in Montgomery County, the state's largest jurisdiction, where Ehrlich aims for at least 40 percent of the vote. Experts say that electorate - probably the state's best-informed - could reject Ehrlich if he appears thin on policy.

A poll conducted for The Sun and released this week found that almost all the voters in the Washington suburbs who have formed an opinion about Ehrlich recently say they don't like him. To combat that, Ehrlich's campaign plans to intensify its efforts there with more ads, more door-knocking and more sit-downs with the candidate, said spokesman Paul E. Schurick.

At public events and with reporters, Ehrlich rarely hesitates to talk about any topic. And he has made his positions clear on a variety of issues, from slots to building the Intercounty Connector to gun control.

But unlike Townsend, who has formally laid out her platform in press conferences, in a 32-page "blueprint," and in position papers on her campaign Web site, Ehrlich's platform rollout has been unpredictable.

Ehrlich began talking about what he called a strong juvenile justice plan months ago. Because violence scandals involving youth offender boot camps occurred under Townsend's watch, the issue is an obvious one for Ehrlich to exploit.

Instead, he has repeatedly postponed his juvenile justice announcement, including yesterday, when he spent the day in Congress.

Three weeks ago, he told reporters that he would be talking about his crime and health-care policies in the week to come. When the time came, he didn't mention crime. And at a health-care forum at the Johns Hopkins University, he said he probably won't unveil a prescription drug plan because he considers it a federal function.

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