Ehrlich set for election face-off

Grudge match with O'Malley well established

Ehrlich set to duke it out with O'Malley at last


In the past two tumultuous weeks, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has seen one of his potential opponents suddenly drop out of the race. He has called a special session of the General Assembly to deal with the coming spike in BGE rates, vetoed the bill that resulted and watched as legislators overrode him.

But as he prepares to announce his re-election bid this week, Ehrlich finds himself right where he always expected to be: in a tooth-and-nail general election fight against Mayor Martin O'Malley, ready to promote his accomplishments as governor and bash the Democrat for his record in running Baltimore.

Political experts, elected officials and campaign workers say the BGE saga and the withdrawal of Democrat Douglas M. Duncan from the race will add some wrinkles to the campaign. But for all the shock waves those developments sent through the state, they won't fundamentally alter the grudge match that's been developing for several years between two of the state's biggest political personalities.

"The die is cast. The line is drawn in the sand. Each side is mobilizing their armies," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a policy research and polling firm in Bethesda. "It's about to be a battle royal like nothing before in Maryland politics."

Ehrlich has stayed on the sidelines in the governor's race for months, saying he would let O'Malley and Duncan slug it out and then join the fight - with a campaign treasury of as much as $20 million - when a Democratic nominee emerged.

But he has been laying the groundwork for his run. In December, he hired a campaign manager, and in the past few months, staffers have migrated from his office on the second floor of the State House to the campaign headquarters in a nondescript Towson office building.

On Wednesday, the governor plans to return to his boyhood home, an Arbutus rowhouse where his parents still live, to formally announce he is running for re-election.

The next day, he is expected to announce a new running mate to replace Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who is running for U.S. Senate. Ehrlich turned heads in 2002 by picking Steele, who became the first African-American elected to statewide office.

Ehrlich has said that his choice of running mate this time will make less difference because he is now a well-known quantity to voters across the state. Most political experts agree with him.

"The most important thing is for him to find someone who will be a confident and competent campaign presence," said James Gimpel, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It might help marginally with crossover voters to have a woman or a minority."

Most of the names circulating in the rumor mill fit one of those categories. The most talked-about contender among Republicans in recent days is Kristen Cox, secretary of Maryland's Department of Disabilities, who is legally blind. She has no experience in electoral politics, but Ehrlich has long been interested in disabilities issues, and her presence on the ticket could help remind voters of this compassionate side of the governor.

Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a Howard County Republican, has long been considered a contender, but her stock might have dropped when she bucked Ehrlich and voted for the Democrats' BGE rate plan. She did, however, switch back to his side Friday when she voted to sustain his veto.

Other possibilities include Housing and Community Development Secretary Victor L. Hoskins, who is African-American; Business and Economic Development Secretary Aris Melissaratos; and Maryland Transportation Authority Executive Secretary Trent M. Kittleman.

Ehrlich aired the first television commercial of his campaign last week, a spot designed to bolster his image as a moderate. O'Malley also went to the airwaves earlier in the month and he, too, stuck to a positive message, promoting his vision for Maryland and his leadership.

But virtually no one in Maryland political circles expects the two sides to stay nice for long. For O'Malley and Ehrlich, this election is personal.

"They do seem to have a tendency to irritate each other much more than you might think," said Carol L. Hirschburg, a Republican strategist who is close to the governor.

Scott Reed, chairman of Chesapeake Enterprises, a Republican political consulting firm in Washington, said voters can expect a "smack-down wrestling match" in which Ehrlich will use his financial advantage - he had twice as much cash on hand as O'Malley in the most recent campaign finance reports - to attack the mayor.

"It's going to come down to defining O'Malley before he has a chance to define himself outside of Baltimore," Reed said.

The governor's main lines of attack are likely to be ones he's been tossing O'Malley's way for some time, including criticism of Baltimore's crime rate and schools. Minutes after news broke that Duncan would drop out of the race, Ehrlich said he was ready to "focus on ... the horrific nature of the O'Malley record."

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