Kendel Ehrlich pauses on her way into the Sheraton Hotel in Columbia and bends her head to listen to an aide before she gives a breakfast speech to the Howard County Chamber of Commerce. Then she takes a deep breath and strides ahead, painfully aware that she is out of bed far too early for an Ehrlich.
It's a rare sunny day in a spring of rain, and Ehrlich, first lady of Maryland, wears a lime green suit, the hem four, maybe five, inches above her knees. She's tanned from a six-day vacation with her governor-husband, and stockingless. The white of her pearls shows off her tan and her blond hair. Her blue eyes flash. At 5-feet-9, she walks into the room with her shoulders back, as if she's on a runway, the wispy flowered scarf at her neck flying behind her.
Only somebody self-assured -- and a model's size -- could get away with a skirt so short that she tugs on it when she sits.
Minutes after her entrance, the room fills with Ehrlich's trademark laugh, a high-pitched echo of ha-has. Men in dark suits rise to greet her. She moves around a table of Rouse Co. executives, shaking each hand and laughing her laugh.
It's a bright laugh, a confident one -- a friend says it personifies her, honest and open -- and Ehrlich, as she has at every stop on a spring tour, lets the audience into her new life as readily as she invites them to visit the public rooms in the governor's mansion.
"Hi, everybody," she booms when she reaches the podium, her voice warm and her gaze so penetrating you think she's speaking directly to you.
Like the trial lawyer she used to be, Kendel Ehrlich thinks about how to sway a jury, and she is keenly aware that the jury now is the people of Maryland. Her husband, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the first Republican governor elected in 36 years, faltered in his initial bid to raise money from a slots bill and now, with a harrowing budget gap, massive cuts are looming.
At the podium, she carries a script and a black marker in her long, thin fingers, but she never glances down, because it makes her uncomfortable. Long ago, she realized the value of eye contact and she loves to maintain it. She has ground to cover.
Her ultimate message, today and every day, is that it takes time to change things in a state long controlled by Democrats.
But she knows people are more interested in change on a more intimate scale, and she wants to deliver.
"Now," she says, "for the good stuff."
"I don't clean," she tells the audience. "I don't cook." Overnight she was transformed from a harried mother running to the Giant and Sam's Club "like everybody else" to a first lady, with a driver and a personal chef asking what she'd like for dinner.
"Well," she said, "what do you have?"
"What do you want?"
She pauses while they laugh. "The house is a privilege," she says. "Thank you."
In her speech this day, and in others from April to June, she elaborates on her topic: How my life has changed.
She tells about the "incredible invite," the February weekend President and Laura Bush had the Ehrlichs to Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains. "They said casual. I didn't know if that meant Palm Beach casual, or casual. They mean jeans and T-shirts. I took a lot of pantsuits."
And lunch with rock star Jon Bon Jovi. When she saw the crowds part to let him pass, she knew he was somebody famous. "Thank goodness for name tags," she says. "And let me tell you, he's got great hair, great teeth, and he's a very humble guy."
It's a new lifestyle, all right. She had two days' notice that former President Bill Clinton would join the governor in the Maryland tent at the Preakness Stakes. But Ehrlich never dreamed Clinton would sit next to her for lunch. Didn't he remember that Bob voted for his impeachment? She had heard that if Clinton thinks you don't like him, he homes in on you. He's very engaging, she says, and he loved her wide-brimmed straw hat with yellow roses.
On the down side of her new life: "It's a little bit of a bummer that the mansion is kinda isolated, not like the old townhouse in Timonium where you could go outside and find a friend for [son] Drew."
And there's the zoo effect. People peer through the mansion's iron gates at the toys and the lounge chairs where she and Drew, 4, play and have lunch.
"The more we are outside -- if it ever gets nicer -- people will 'get over' that we are out and about a lot," she says. Ahem, she adds, laughing, when the audience is in Annapolis, "I hope the Annapolis Historical Society is not too upset about the toys out there."
Somehow, the plastic on the lawn seems less tacky when you see how much Kendel Ehrlich cares about having a normal life. Her obvious awe at her new position seems less naive when you see how she pairs it with the message she wants you to hear.
Take the weekend at Camp David.