Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will take a major step toward defining his governorship this week when he decides the fate of several much-debated pieces of legislation approved by the General Assembly.
Whether he blocks or approves this final series of bills from the 2003 session - ranging from fiscal issues such as corporate tax increases to social concerns such as the treatment of immigrants - could determine if Ehrlich alienates his Republican base or angers Maryland's majority-Democratic electorate.
Mixed messages - vetoing some bills while approving others - could make the new Republican administration more difficult for supporters and critics to characterize.
"I think it is unmistakable; you are going to see his decisions on some of these bills are going to clearly help define where he stands on some high-profile policy matters," said Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director.
The administration has been facing intense pressure from advocates on both sides of each issue, forcing the governor and his staff to navigate through delicate discussions on how to act.
The governor's staff has been toiling for weeks to craft veto messages it hopes will place Ehrlich's decisions in the best possible light, capping his first legislative session as chief executive.
High-profile bills awaiting the governor's blessing include a $135 million corporate tax package and a proposal to remake the CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield board of directors.
Ehrlich must also decide the fate of initiatives to give illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates, to reduce penalties for the medical use of marijuana and to allow local jurisdictions to use automated radar cameras to catch speeding motorists.
The governor is expected to issue a batch of vetoes Wednesday and to sign more bills into law Thursday, with interest groups from across the political spectrum ready to pounce on the administration if the governor goes against their wishes.
"He campaigned as a moderate. The Maryland voters thought they were getting a moderate when they elected him, and based on which bills he signs and which bills he vetoes, we are going to find out if he is really moderate," said Sean Dobson, deputy director of Progressive Maryland, which is urging the governor to sign the tax and immigrant tuition bills.
Not to be outdone, conservatives say they will not give Ehrlich a free pass if he disappoints them.
"We would certainly expect he would veto a tax rise of any kind, and that includes the package that is in front of him," said Richard Falknor, vice president of the Maryland Taxpayers Association. Falknor's group is also urging the governor to veto the immigrant tuition bill.
But those divergent views could be just what the governor had hoped for.
Some suspect Ehrlich may use his final bill decisions to please social conservatives and Republican business leaders on some issues, but move back toward the center on others.
The strategy is often known as "triangulation" - a concept embraced by President Bush and former President Bill Clinton - where a politician does just enough to keep ardent supporters happy while going against them sometimes to reach out to moderate voters.
Ehrlich could satisfy conservative Republicans by vetoing the corporate tax bill - which will require further cuts to many government programs - and the immigrant tuition bill, while at same time trying to appease moderates by signing the medical marijuana proposal.
`Mixes them up'
"Instead of defining him more clearly, if he mixes them up, it could actually make it more difficult to define him because some bills he would seem conservative and on some bills he seems to be moderate," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University.
Ehrlich and his top advisers deny that political strategy has any role in his deliberations or the timing of his decisions.
"I just wanted a complete and full vetting before I make decisions on the most controversial bills," Ehrlich said.
Shortly after the inauguration, Ehrlich laid out a moderate agenda that caused many Democrats to grumble that he was looking and sounding like one of them while they were convinced he was not. But since the demise of his slots proposal, the governor's rhetoric has been more conservative, and he has been aggressively reaching out to his Republican base.
Concrete actions such as signing or vetoing a major piece of legislation should start shaping the true Ehrlich.
"That starts to define his administration," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "The important thing for him to remember is that the people who elected him were the moderate to conservative Democrats in suburbia."
Top Democrats, who have been struggling to find an effective weapon to use against the governor, are eagerly awaiting his decisions. They are preparing to denounce Ehrlich for whichever of the high-profile bills he vetoes.