Several hundred anti-tax "Tea Party" protesters converged on a courtyard outside the Governor's Mansion Wednesday night after the Maryland General Assembly opened its legislative session, shouting "vote them out."
The star protester: Former Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican who is pondering a rematch against the Democratic governor who defeated him four years ago.
Ehrlich, who attended the rally with his wife, Kendel, and several former aides, did not speak but milled around the gathering of energized activists. The crowd appeared to embrace him -- there were multiple handmade signs bearing his name.
"I have not seen many crowds this size," the former governor said to reporters. "It is a cold night, and there are an awful lot of people."
As he has in the past, Ehrlich deflected questions about whether he will challenge Gov. Martin O'Malley this fall. "The truth is, there's a process, and they know that," Ehrlich said. "I'm following the process and expect it to be complete within a month or two. People are respectful of that."
Ehrlich had promoted the rally on his WBAL radio show, calling for "a couple thousand, minimum" to show up and protest what organizers called "O'Malley's fiscal mismanagement."
Protesters want to "send a message" that "taxpayers are not happy" with the state government, said Dave Schwartz, the state director of Americans for Prosperity, which organized the event.
Schwartz, said "people are dissatisfied. It is a frustration with both parties."
Nationally, the Tea Party movement includes loosely organized groups of conservatives who stress reducing taxes and government spending. They were particularly vocal opposing health care reform during town hall meetings last summer. Schwartz, a former Ehrlich fundraiser, said he thinks the former governor "plays well" with those groups.
The strength of Tea Party support in heavily Democratic Maryland -- or nationally -- is not clear. Last month, a Wall Street Journal poll reported that 41 percent of respondents had a favorable view of the movement. The same poll showed Republicans were viewed positively by 28 percent and Democrats with a 35 percent favorable rating.
Tickets to a the first "Tea Party Nation" convention next month in Nashville, where former GOP Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin is set to speak, have sold out, according to its website.
Despite the event being just outside the governor's home, Ehrlich, said he doubted O'Malley would get the message. "I told people, don't expect your presence to get folks to change their minds," he said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. "The point is that average folks are showing up and saying they've had it. These are the building blocks for November 2010."
Ehrlich whirled through Annapolis Wednesday afternoon, greeting former lawmakers and dodging their repeated questions about whether he is going to challenge O'Malley this fall. He said politicians understand the position he's in and are willing to be patient.
O'Malley had little to say about the rally. "I haven't really thought that much about it," he said Wednesday afternoon. "We are putting together our legislative agenda. We are welcoming everyone back."
But he offered a veiled critique of the group's timing. "One of the great things about the opening day of session is the partisanship is at a very low ebb and citizenship is at its hightest ebb," O'Malley observed. "So I think we want to continue that sprit."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the group was welcome in Annapolis. "This is their State House, too, and their capital."
But he doesn't believe the Tea Party movement has a strong base in the state. "It is strong in the sage brush West," he said. "It reflects anger at government."
Some said the association could be a liability for Ehrlich.
"It is the far right portion of the far right, so [Ehrlich] is appealing to his base," said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"I don't see anyway that this helps him with the rest of Maryland. Maryland is a very blue state," Norris said. "People who think and reason will see through this for what is it. Naked partisanship."
Ehrlich said that if he does decide to run, his "broad-based appeal" trumps any concerns about aligning with the Tea Party, even if it is viewed by some as a fringe movement.
"This is much more organic," he said of the Annapolis rally. "It's not led by any party or group. It's new, right-of-center populism."
Protesters were bused in from around the state and gathered at the Lawyer's Mall, a brick yard near the State House, displaying anti-government signs.