Ehrlich waits as Democrats duke it out

Governor raises funds and remains above the fray as O'Malley and Duncan target each other in primary


A chief political rival was about to launch what promises to be a long and contentious campaign to unseat him, but Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. couldn't help but grin.

Before Mayor Martin O'Malley could announce his candidacy Sept. 28, he found his record under a withering assault - without Ehrlich or any other Republican uttering a word. Instead, it was Douglas M. Duncan, the Montgomery County executive and likely gubernatorial candidate, who was attacking fellow Democrat O'Malley on crime, schools and taxes. The governor was left hovering above the fray.

"I'm going to give what will become a familiar refrain: I'm not going to get involved in Democratic Party politics," Ehrlich said with a smile during a trip to Oriole Park at Camden Yards on the eve of O'Malley's announcement. "I'm not going to have anything negative to say about either candidate."

As Duncan and O'Malley scramble to campaign stops around the state, testing out themes they hope to use to win the governor's race next year, Ehrlich's campaign strategy at this point is to lay low, raise money and let his opponents pound on each other.

All but assured of having no substantive competition in the Republican primary, Ehrlich said he intends to get seriously involved in the race only after one of them emerges as the Democratic nominee. The major organizational work of a campaign - lining up volunteers, naming precinct captains, printing literature - likely will wait until well into next year, Ehrlich communications director Paul E. Schurick said.

"The governor is only focused on running state government and will stay focused on running state government," Schurick said. "He'll know when it's time to focus on a campaign."

That time, Schurick said, is "way down the road."

In the meantime, the governor is letting two competitive Democratic rivals do the dirty work for him. Duncan, in effect, is delivering the same jabs Ehrlich would if the governor were campaigning against O'Malley: that Baltimore remains a dangerous and dysfunctional place and that the mayor has done little to improve conditions there.

As recently as six weeks ago, Ehrlich leveled similar criticism at O'Malley. When a federal judge ordered the state to take over the city's special education program, the governor brushed aside any notion that O'Malley could help fix the problems in the system.

"What the City Council or Martin O'Malley or anyone thinks right now is not particularly germane to this," Ehrlich said at the time. "They had the opportunity to get these kids their services, they failed, and now the state is going to come in and try to fix it."

But with the Democrats now engaged in an intraparty fight, Ehrlich can stay in the spotlight without joining the debate. By virtue of being governor, Ehrlich can command statewide media attention simply by doing his job, allowing him to focus on the accomplishments he hopes to highlight over the next year.

Recently, Ehrlich has made news by announcing a cleanup plan for the Corsica River, by presiding over the renaming of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and by taking batting practice and throwing out the first pitch at an Orioles game.

"I think what the governor wants to do over the course of time is push his message, which I think is one of having built the [Inter-County Connector], improving transportation, funding education at historic levels, protecting the bay, reducing the size of government and saving Maryland families from huge tax increases," said Republican consultant Kevin Igoe.

What Ehrlich has done to prepare for the campaign is raise money - and lots of it.

The governor holds relatively few big-ticket gala fundraisers but instead has built an unmatched campaign treasury through small fundraisers in supporters' homes and direct-mail solicitations.

The most recent campaign finance reports were filed in January, but they show the governor had raised prodigious sums far before the election. In the two-year period after the 2002 election, he collected 12,300 contributions, totaling about $4.8 million in cash - more than double what the Democratic frontrunner, then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, had at the same point before the last election.

In the months before the last reporting deadline, Ehrlich raised more than $10,000 a day, on average, and that pace has only increased since then, Schurick said.

That makes Democrats nervous.

"The governor is going to have $20 million with no primary opponent," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Miller, one of the Democrats' top strategists, said Duncan won't benefit politically by criticizing Baltimore or trying to compare his jurisdiction with the mayor's, and he expects the county executive to stop.

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