O'Malley eager to face Ehrlich again, campaign manager says

Calls this year a 'once-in-a-lifetime opportunity' for Republicans

March 12, 2010|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

Although former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has yet to officially enter the race for his old office, Gov. Martin O'Malley is eager to take him on, according to the governor's campaign manager, Tom Russell.

Russell, a longtime Democratic campaigner, said the current heated political conditions can't help but entice Ehrlich into a rematch against O'Malley.

" Maryland is a Democratic state, but this is one heck of a Republican year," Russell said. "Right now, incumbents are suffering, and Democrats are suffering." Ehrlich is smart enough to know, Russell said, "that this is a once-in-a-lifetime environment."

While he was frank about the problems Democrats face in this year's political atmosphere, Russell saved his harshest words for Ehrlich during a talk Wednesday night to about 30 members of the Columbia Democratic Club.

"He had four years in good economic times, and he did nothing with it," Russell told club members at the Jeffers Hill Community Center in Columbia. "He coasted. He was Bob the friendly guy. He didn't do his job."

Ehrlich's spokesman, Henry Fawell, responded Thursday by saying that Ehrlich is "flattered by all the attention. When a governor has no ideas or achievements of his own, he attacks others."

Fawell said Ehrlich has set no firm date for deciding whether to run, though he continues to make speaking appearances and might decide "in a couple of weeks."

Russell said he came on board as O'Malley's campaign manager in July, and has been awaiting Ehrlich's move ever since. Although Russell said the state's political climate now is worse for Democrats than it was in 1994, when Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey almost beat Democrat Parris N. Glendening for governor, O'Malley "is actually looking forward to" a race against Ehrlich, who he said is vulnerable.

"He's no Scott Brown," Russell said, referring to the little-known Massachusetts Republican state senator who won the late Edward M. Kennedy's Democratic seat in the U.S. Senate.

Ehrlich won't be an unknown outsider if he runs, Russell said. "He can't be an empty vessel," Russell said about candidate Ehrlich, who lost his re-election bid to O'Malley in 2006.

Russell last worked on Capitol Hill for the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, according to The Washington Post. Earlier, he managed Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow's successful 2006 re-election campaign, and he has worked in six states besides Maryland, The Post said.

At the Columbia meeting, Russell said Democrats are facing a tough election year because of the unprecedented recession and the hard times it has brought.

"The last four years, we've had really bad times, a global economic crisis. People understand that, but they're not happy," Russell told the group.

Despite what Russell called Ehrlich's "longest listening tour in the history of American politics," he said Democrats expect the former governor to run. When he does finally announce, Russell said, "we're going to go from 0 to 60 very fast."

Asked by a club member who the Republican nominee might be if Ehrlich doesn't run, Russell said he doesn't know, since Ehrlich's hesitation has driven every prominent Republican out of the race. George W. Owings III, a Democrat who served in Ehrlich's Cabinet as veterans affairs secretary, has announced he will oppose O'Malley in the Democratic primary.

Russell also answered a question about Ehrlich's criticism of O'Malley for taking a weekend trip to Iraq to visit with Maryland National Guard troops while the General Assembly is in session. He said the governor left his BlackBerry at home on that trip and was unaware of the comments until he got back.

"His reaction was, 'Is [Ehrlich] crazy?' ... It was silly," Russell said about the comments, though "to some extent, it's the gift that keeps on giving" politically for O'Malley.

O'Malley intends to contrast his decisions and what he sees as Maryland's progress in important areas, including public schools, against Ehrlich's record, Russell said. The campaign will be based on "why Maryland is better off today than four years ago under Bob Ehrlich."

Russell said Democrats are also working on tactics, setting up "rapid response teams" to counter any Republican or "tea party-type" conservative criticism. He said Democrats were weak in that area in contests won by Republicans last fall in Virginia and New Jersey.

"That's what we need to avoid here," Russell told the group. "Every one of you has a personal sphere to work," he said, mentioning Facebook as a way to connect with voters. "This is the way you fight a national trend.

"In 2006 and 2008, those were wave years. We had everything going for us," Russell said. "Those times are gone."

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