Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. chose Kristen Cox - the legally blind head of the state disabilities office - as his running mate yesterday, a pick that makes a play for female voters and aims to show that the governor's brand of conservatism is tempered by compassion.
Cox, 36, is a mother of two who has never run for elected office and is little known outside State House circles. A former Washington lobbyist for an advocacy group for the blind, she joined Ehrlich's administration in 2003 and became a department secretary when he elevated her office to Cabinet-level status.
"We share the philosophical approach of empowering people and providing them with very meaningful, substantial opportunities to make their lives better," Cox said during an announcement with the governor and first lady Kendel Ehrlich in Annapolis.
"Look, I've got a cane - dead giveaway I'm blind. So for very personal and professional reasons, I fundamentally believe that when you give people the right training, the right support, the right opportunities, that they can live very productive and meaningful lives."
Ehrlich - who needed a new running mate because Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is seeking election to the U.S. Senate - stressed that he selected Cox because she is personally and philosophically compatible with him.
He worked to quash any brewing criticism about her relative lack of experience or name recognition.
A Mormon, Cox was raised in Utah and moved to Maryland to lobby for the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind in 1999. Records show she registered to vote in Baltimore County as a Republican in March 2000.
"We're not necessarily introducing her to Maryland," Ehrlich said. "She's been around. She's young, but she's been around."
The choice of Cox could help patch some of the governor's weaknesses as he seeks a second term, political observers said. Recent polls indicate he faces a significant gender gap as he battles Mayor Martin O'Malley, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in what is expected to be a close contest in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of nearly 2-to-1.
Ehrlich is also working to appeal to Maryland's moderate voters, whom he wooed successfully in 2002 to become the first GOP governor in three decades.
Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins political science professor, said Ehrlich is using the selection to craft a softer and more centrist public persona.
"He's trying to do the same thing that George Bush and George H.W. Bush did, and that is to be a kinder and gentler Republican, and to try to overcome the gender gap that's apparent in recent polls," Crenson said.
A Washington Post poll released this week found Ehrlich trails O'Malley by 19 points among women registered to vote.
Waiting to be introduced, Cox cradled a son, 1-year-old Riley, in one arm and tucked a long white cane under the other. Ehrlich appeared to kiss her on the forehead after introducing her and again after she spoke. Ehrlich noted that Cox is a wife and a working mother, like Kendel Ehrlich.
But some advocates for women's groups said that while they appreciated the presence of a woman on the Republican ticket, they were not swayed by the selection. They said Cox's positions on a range of issues affecting women - from abortion and contraception to the minimum wage and gay marriage - remain unknown.
Cox did not take questions from reporters yesterday after the announcement, and a campaign official would not answer queries about her views.
"The gubernatorial ticket needs to be solidly pro-choice, and we don't know yet where Ms. Cox stands on reproductive rights and access to birth control," said Ariana Kelly, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, which fights for abortion rights.
Duchy Trachtenberg, president of Maryland NOW, said she has been disappointed with Ehrlich's record - from his veto of a minimum wage increase to his support for a fetal rights bill.
"While we certainly applaud the selection of a woman on the ticket, at the same time we have a lot of difficulty in supporting any ticket with Governor Ehrlich on it," Trachtenberg said.
But Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a Howard County Republican who was often mentioned as a contender for the position, said the governor made a "fabulous choice" and enjoys being surrounded by strong women.
"She's intelligent. She's sensitive," Schrader said. "I'm excited for her."
Joined yesterday by her two sons and husband, Cox lauded the governor for expanding opportunities for all Marylanders. She said that in weighing the decision to run, she considered how the campaign might affect her family.
Cox said she concluded that she believes in the governor's work in supporting funding for charter schools and in his commitment to diversity, among other reasons - and wanted to stand with him as he ran for re-election.