Ehrlich turns campaign into feisty counterattack

Faced with unfavorable poll numbers, he talks health care, immigration to rally conservatives for rematch with O'Malley

  • Former Maryland governor and current Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. speaks with the editorial board of The Baltimore Sun.
Former Maryland governor and current Republican gubernatorial… (Kevin Richardson, Baltimore…)
October 30, 2010|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

The fire in Bob Ehrlich's tone matched the red of his polo shirt.

His friend, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, had just finished a fierce speech dismissing Democrat Martin O'Malley as the "most anti-business governor in the country." His one-time tea party antagonist, Brian Murphy, sat by the stage offering support.

The Republican candidate for governor seemed in his element, spoiling for a fight.

"He can't market what he's done," Ehrlich shouted to hundreds of supporters against the brilliant autumn backdrop of a Montgomery County farm. "Because he's done nothing!"

Earlier this year, political analysts treated the Ehrlich-O'Malley rematch as a clash of the titans — a rare contest between the sitting governor and his predecessor with polls showing them in a dead heat. But O'Malley pressed his large financial advantage, releasing a barrage of negative advertising against Ehrlich over the summer. And a recent Sun poll showed the incumbent with a 14-point lead among likely voters.

With other surveys producing similar results, Ehrlich has spent the home stretch of his campaign as a brawling underdog, relentlessly attacking O'Malley and trying to tap into national outrage over unemployment, illegal immigration and President Barack Obama's health-care overhaul — issues that have imperiled Democrats in other states.

In nearly every stump speech, Ehrlich, 52, has accused O'Malley of insulting Maryland voters with his advertising. When the two met for a debate on WOLB radio, Ehrlich showed his fighting spirit, honed as a linebacker at Gilman and Princeton and as the first Republican elected governor in Democratic Maryland since the 1960s.

"Enough of this stuff," he told O'Malley, after the Democrat accused him of voting against minority business programs in Congress. "We're not here to look at 15-year-old votes when you don't even know what you're talking about. You don't get to reinvent facts."

And when O'Malley brought up Ehrlich's post-gubernatorial stint as a highly paid lawyer, the Republican said, "It's OK to get a job in the private sector. You're going to be looking for one in a few months."

Since that confrontation 12 days before the election, Ehrlich has grinned and shouted his way through rallies, conceding nothing to the polls. He touts a recent fundraising edge over O'Malley, and internal polls that he says show a much closer race.

During a rally at Leisure World in Silver Spring, Ehrlich told Republican Club members he was done with politics after Democrats dominated the 2008 election.

"There wasn't any reason to run if I couldn't look you in the eye and say, 'We can win,'" he said.

He credited his wife, Kendel, with keeping his mind open and said he changed it altogether because of the enthusiasm he saw at grassroots events in 2009.

"I'm very happy I made the decision," he said

Ehrlich's geographic strategy has been clear. Four years ago, he won 19 of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions but was unable to overcome crushing defeats in Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Over much of the last two weeks, he has bounced between Montgomery County, a Democratic stronghold where an improvement of a few points could mean thousands of extra votes, and his political home base of Baltimore County, where he says large turnout and a commanding margin are essential to his chances for victory.

Ehrlich said O'Malley hurt him in Montgomery County with an early barrage of television advertising, portraying the Republican as a lobbyist for the oil industry and attempting to discredit him for claiming fee increases weren't the same as tax increases. But he added that his counterattack, launched with three weeks remaining in the campaign, has begun to pay off, according to internal polls.

Speaking to early voters last weekend in Catonsville, Ehrlich called Baltimore County "the key to winning."

"This is my home so it's personal to me," he said. "It's really personal."

The Arbutus native, speaking from the bed of a pickup truck in a form-fitting Under Armour shirt, delighted in a sign that read, "Hippies for Ehrlich."

Its maker, Christine Koloski, is a former Democrat who runs an energy-healing practice and wore a wreath of flowers to the rally. She said she's worried about the direction of the state and country.

"As a middle-income couple, my husband and I are finding it more difficult to make a decent living," she said. "We're making more money, but we seem to have less and less in our pockets."

Aides say Baltimore County offers "the highest ceiling" for Ehrlich. He hopes to build a decisive margin there in part on the votes of registered Democrats who supported Joe Bartenfelder in the primary race for county executive. It was common during the primary season to see Ehrlich and Bartenfelder signs paired on the same lawns. And Ehrlich has spent significant time wooing blue-collar Democrats who are concerned about unemployment and the impacts of illegal immigration.

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