Ehrlich hires '06 director

Harmon key to re-election bid

he was criticized over Ga. campaign

December 10, 2005|By ANDREW A. GREEN | ANDREW A. GREEN,SUN REPORTER

In the first major step toward building a campaign team, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has hired a political director whose major credit is the successful race he ran to unseat a former Georgia senator and crusading war veteran that has Democrats there still crying foul four years later.

Bo Harmon, a veteran of the National Republican Congressional Committee and other GOP organizations, as well as manager of Saxby Chambliss' campaign against then-Sen. Max Cleland, said yesterday that he is coming to Maryland to get the word out about Ehrlich's accomplishments.

Democrats here and in Georgia immediately criticized the hire, saying Ehrlich is bringing to Maryland a virtuoso of nastiness who attacked the patriotism of Cleland, an Army veteran who lost three limbs in Vietnam.

"Bo Harmon ran one of the most despicable campaigns in the history of Georgia, if not the nation," Georgia Democratic Party Chairman Bobby Kahn said in a statement.

"Senator Chambliss' campaign was the worst example of the politics of personal destruction, defaming the character of a man who gave up so much for his country in Vietnam," Kahn added. "If Bo Harmon was willing to do that in 2002 against an American war hero like Max Cleland, one can only imagine what he is likely to do in 2006."

Ehrlich communications director Paul E. Schurick, press secretary Greg Massoni and campaign finance chief John Reith did not return phone messages.

Harmon, who starts work Monday, dismissed questions about the Chambliss campaign.

"I think that the focus now is on Governor Ehrlich and his record of turning a $1.7 billion deficit into an almost $2 billion surplus, and the voters of Maryland are probably more interested in those issues than what happened in Georgia four years ago," Harmon said.

Georgia Republicans tell a different story about Harmon and the Chambliss campaign.

Georgia GOP Executive Director Paul Bennecke called the Democrats' complaints "sour apples," and said that Chambliss won because he showed the contrast between the moderate image Cleland portrayed at home and his votes in Washington.

Chambliss used advertising and grass-roots campaigning to convince voters that he would stand by President Bush and that Cleland wouldn't, Bennecke said.

"Bo Harmon is a very smart man who knows a lot about politics and how to win elections," Chambliss said in a statement.

The event in the 2002 campaign that riled Democrats and some Republicans was a television advertisement attacking the votes of Cleland, head of the Veterans' Administration under President Jimmy Carter, on homeland security issues. The ad showed pictures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, then a picture of Cleland. A narrator said that while America faced terrorists and dictators, Cleland had been voting against Bush's homeland security efforts.

Republican Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam veteran, called the ad "worse than disgraceful." Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel , also a Vietnam vet, said it was "beyond offensive."

Maryland Democratic Party spokesman Derek Walker said he was shocked that the governor would hire Harmon, and compared the political director to Joseph F. Steffen Jr., the former Ehrlich aide who was fired after admitting to spreading rumors about Mayor Martin O'Malley.

"Ehrlich's finally found the successor to the `Prince of Darkness,' his previous self-ordained hit man," Walker said. "Bo Harmon has run the nastiest, most divisive campaign in recent memory, and there's no reason to believe that he won't bring similar tactics to Maryland under the direction of Tom DeLay-trained Bob Ehrlich."

Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said the outcry over the ad is overblown.

"It was not a centerpiece of the campaign," he said.

What made the difference in the campaign, Black said, was that Cleland voted with the national Democratic agenda most of the time, something no Georgia senator has been able to do in decades without losing.

"There was one issue involving the Boy Scouts and gays, and Cleland sided with the gays over the Boy Scouts. Well, Chambliss asked him to explain that," Black said. "That's how they defeated him. He took several conspicuously liberal positions on hot-button issues, and when they were called to the attention of Georgia voters, they went to Chambliss."

andy.green@baltsun.com

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