Ehrlich moves east in search of new voters in tight race

Prince George's, not Montgomery, is now the `center of the universe'

October 19, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

As the governor's race enters its final whirlwind weeks, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is shifting his strategy in the all-important Washington suburbs, increasing his dollars and presence in Prince George's County, one of the state's most loyally Democratic jurisdictions - now called by his campaign "the center of the universe."

Ehrlich says he is adjusting his schedule to accommodate more trips to Prince George's and is spending more money there on mailings and other outreach efforts. His campaign is opening a second office in the county, in Upper Marlboro. And Doro Bush Koch, the president's sister, is holding a fund-raiser for Ehrlich tonight in the county.

Ehrlich says he has "inherited some of the infrastructure" - including former campaign workers - from two Democratic candidates who ran unsuccessfully in the primary race for Prince George's county executive. Wayne Clarke, who ran the county executive campaign of the Rev. C. Anthony Muse, has been hired to coordinate Ehrlich's Prince George's campaign.

At a Bowie bull roast last weekend for Audrey E. Scott, a Republican running for county executive, Ehrlich explained his purpose. "There's a reason I'm here," he said to the crowd. "Our [numbers] here are picking up dramatically."

Michael S. Steele, Ehrlich's running mate and a Prince George's native, has been beating the same drum. "The center of the universe is really here in Prince George's County," he told a group of supporters last week in Oxon Hill. "I can't tell you how important it is for all of you to touch a neighbor, touch a friend and get them to vote for us."

The strategy shift comes as Ehrlich's internal poll numbers in Montgomery, the state's largest county, are failing to rise. To win the election, Ehrlich's camp was banking on capturing at least 40 percent of the vote in Montgomery. But his numbers there are stuck in the 30s, he said, in part because of the barrage of TV ads airing there that criticize Ehrlich's record on gun control. With the serial sniper still free, Montgomery voters say they are paying more attention to gun laws.

So Ehrlich is hoping to make up for that potentially fatal lag by ratcheting up his Prince George's operation. Already, he says, he is polling above the 25 percent he thought he could win in the county. By Election Day, he added, he is optimistic he can get at least 30 percent - largely from well-to-do African-American business people who like his economic message of "opportunity" for minority companies and his promises to improve schools and ease traffic.

Democratic stronghold

Traditional political wisdom says Ehrlich's plan could be foolhardy. Besides Baltimore, Prince George's has the highest concentration of Democrats in Maryland; they outnumber registered Republicans 5-to 1.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who wasn't terribly popular in Prince George's at the time, won 74 percent of the vote there in 1998, against Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

By contrast, Montgomery County is home to Maryland's highest number of registered independent voters. Although the majority of its voters are registered Democrats, past elections have shown many of them are what pollsters call "persuadable."

"It's a bad strategic mistake," Keith Haller of Potomac Survey Research, a polling firm, said of Ehrlich's move. Prince George's "is absolutely [Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's] best political jurisdiction."

Townsend spokesman Peter Hamm said her campaign isn't worried. "Bob Ehrlich likes to talk in football terms. Well, this is a desperation pass," he said. "That's our home field advantage."

Interest in Ehrlich

But others, including Democrats, say if he plays his cards right, Ehrlich is poised to do much better in the county than history would predict.

"It doesn't sound crazy to me," said Democratic Del. Rushern L. Baker III, who ran for county executive and is the former chairman of his county's caucus in the Maryland House of Delegates. "I think a lot of people do find him appealing here. At least the people I'm talking to - mostly Democrats in their 40s, pretty successful - are at least looking at him."

Baker said there are Ehrlich signs on lawns in his Cheverly neighborhood, the first time he remembers seeing anyone in nearby streets boosting a Republican.

Ehrlich and others say there are several reasons Prince Georgians are checking him out. Many African-American voters there still feel burned by Townsend's choice of running mate, retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, a former Republican who is white.

"You have a Kennedy ... this person who's supposed to be a white person sensitive to the needs of African-Americans, and she picks not only a white man but a Republican," said Sydney Moore, who runs a Seabrook tire store and served in the administration of County Executive Wayne K. Curry. "If you are African-American and you've done everything white society has told you to do to sit at the table and you still don't get picked, it has to weigh on you."

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