Governor seems content out of spotlight

Aspirations: Maryland's top Republican isn't making the moves of a man seeking higher office.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Election 2004 -- The Republican Convention

September 02, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- The last time a Maryland governor just two years into office led his state at a Republican National Convention, he walked away as the nominee for vice president.

History isn't treating Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. the same it treated Spiro T. Agnew, however.

For starters, the job is taken this year, in contrast to Miami Beach in 1968, when Richard Nixon was searching for a running mate.

And if Ehrlich aspires to higher office, he is doing a good job of masking those ambitions at the party's quadrennial bash. Despite the opportunities for self-promotion presenting themselves in New York, he is showing no outward signs of building a web of connections to position himself for higher office.

"We are so singularly focused on what is going on in Maryland right now," Ehrlich said in a pre-convention interview, explaining his limited presence here. "The rule, in my view, is that anyone who aspires to higher office from where they are at the present should focus on their job. The best way to run for higher office is to perform."

The governor turned down at least two offers to appear on network television shows that reach audiences in the millions, Ehrlich aides note, and he spent several hours Tuesday morning on Long Island's famed Bethpage Black golf course yesterday, part of a Republican Governors Association event.

But he also raised a quarter-million dollars during a fund-raiser here and was host of a party Tuesday night, billed as a "friend-raiser," on a pier jutting into the Hudson River.

Despite his stated desire for a low-voltage Big Apple visit, Ehrlich found the spotlight this week when he denounced as "racist" Democratic efforts to attract and retain African-American support.

The comment typified one of the qualities that could burden Ehrlich as he continues in his political career: an unbridled willingness to address topics he could easily avoid, sometimes drawing anger and criticism from opponents when he uses sharp words without fully explaining them.

Another example came earlier this year, when he labeled multiculturalism "bunk" and "crap."

He caused a minor stir last week when he said on a Washington-area radio station that President Bush should stay out of Maryland as he campaigns, indicating the state is unlikely to go the president's way.

Such honesty, the governor frequently says, creates "currency" with voters.

Political observers offer a mixed assessment of Ehrlich's potential for higher office, in the form of a Cabinet-level position in a Republican administration or on a presidential ticket.

"I never thought of him as a national figure," said Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a former Democratic mayor and governor who is a strong supporter of Ehrlich's. "I look at him as a very good governor. He is very charismatic. He is a good speaker. He is honest. He's got everything going for him, except he comes from a small state."

Still, as Bill Clinton showed, even politicians from small states can achieve big things. And a relatively young Republican governor who defeated a member of the Kennedy family in a heavily Democratic state offers a compelling story.

"He was a rising star when he was in Congress, so there were always high expectations for him," said Mike Hudome, a Washington-based GOP strategist. "He is not pigeon-holed ideologically. He's got friends in leadership in Congress."

"If Bob Ehrlich wanted to put a national network together, he's got a pretty good start," Hudome said. "You might even say his experience in Congress and his experience as a governor gives him a leg up."

Indeed, the road to the presidency in modern times frequently passes through State Houses.

"Any governor has potential, depending on how they govern and the politics of the cycle when their opportunity arises," said John T. Willis, a Democrat and political historian who was secretary of state under Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Recent national political trends have not favored Maryland politicians, Willis said.

"What worked for Agnew in 1968 was we were considered more Southern than we are considered now," he said. "One of Nixon's strategies was a Southern strategy. Agnew helped advance that strategy. ... What has cut against Maryland since Agnew is, it hasn't been playing to what national parties need in a campaign."

While saying he was "hesitant" to discuss the issue, Ehrlich acknowledged that a second-term Republican governor from Maryland could appeal to a national electorate "if he is successful, if he has a record of accomplishment, if he is effective in articulating a view, a vision, a record -- appealing across party lines."

Ehrlich's top fund-raiser, Richard E. Hug, says that while he is confident he could help the governor raise the money needed to make him competitive in a national contest, he will be retiring from the cash-collecting business after the 2006 gubernatorial race and would not accept the challenge.

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