SILVER SPRING - Rolling out a partisan message he believes will resonate with voters, Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. criticized yesterday what he called the entrenched "status quo" gripping a General Assembly that thwarted much of his agenda before concluding earlier this week.
Ehrlich returned to campaign-style themes in delivering his first major speech since the legislature adjourned. He told a crowd of 600 at a Montgomery County Republican Party fund-raising dinner that he will fulfill the mandate for change he says he received during last year's election.
"The status quo in this state is `spend and tax,'" Ehrlich said. "At least tax and spend is honest. Spend and tax is not. That way of thinking hasn't changed in Annapolis in 40 years."
Also in the speech, Ehrlich praised President Bush's leadership in handling the war in Iraq and addressed issues he focused on during the session including charter schools, gun crimes and drugs.
Ehrlich aides said the governor will recycle the speech as he travels the state in the aftermath of a session that provided him with few visible successes. The governor says he wants to reconnect with voters and spend time away from the State House.
The governor's slot-machine plan was rejected, as was his call for tougher gun prosecutions through a program similar to Project Exile in Virginia.
Steve Abrams, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party, gave Ehrlich a "C+" grade for the session.
"I think it was an eye-opener," Abrams said of Ehrlich, a former state legislator and congressman. "It's probably not the Annapolis he knew 10 or 12 years ago."
But the governor said his record should be judged more by what didn't happen: Sales and income taxes weren't raised - allowing Ehrlich to keep a key campaign pledge.
"Sometimes success is measured by the bad things that didn't happen," Ehrlich said. "Sometimes you measure success by how much more efficient a program becomes. They're starting to get it in Annapolis. We're going to have eight years for them to get it right."
Aides said Ehrlich is emboldened by a recent poll - paid for by the state Republican Party - which shows that 67 percent of voters surveyed say they favor slots at racetracks if the money is spent on education, and that only 21 percent of residents think taxes should be raised to help close the state's budget deficits.
Still, Ehrlich's message is evolving from that of three months ago, when he was sworn in promising bipartisan cooperation.
"There will be honest disagreements where spending priorities are concerned, but good and honest and hard-working people can overcome their differences in the best interests of the people," he said in his inaugural address Jan. 15.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, said the administration has provided few solutions of its own to the state's fiscal problems. The governor, he said, is pulling himself toward the conservative end of the spectrum, which will limit the amount of cooperation and work he will get done with the General Assembly.
"They've locked themselves in the corner about what direction they are going to take for four years, and that's appealing to the hard right," said Busch.
Before last night's dinner at the Indian Springs Country Club, protesters gathered at the entrance demanding that Ehrlich sign the tax bill into law because it contains provisions forcing companies to pay a fair share of taxes. The demonstration, organized by Progressive Maryland and the Montgomery County Education Association, attracted about 30 people.
"The deep-pocket contributors in attendance will be relieved when Ehrlich explains that he intends to balance the budget on the backs of schoolchildren - not by asking millionaires and big corporations to pay their fair share of taxes," said Sean Dobson of Progressive Maryland.
Asked what she thought of the Ehrlich administration, Patty Rapp, 38, a Germantown lawyer who took part in the protest, said: "I'm not enjoying it."
"He promised to fund education, and I want to see it happen," she said.