REP. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. has a new opponent in his race for governor: President Kennedy.
According to the latest fund-raising letter by Ehrlich, the expected Republican nominee for governor, his victory is crucial to block a Kennedy return to the White House.
"Dear Friend," the letter begins, "If you don't want to see another 'President Kennedy,' I need your immediate support."
It goes on to explain why "common-sense Americans" should donate to his campaign.
"If you and I fail to defeat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in this race, her next step will be to run for president against George W. Bush" in 2004, Ehrlich tells potential donors.
In the breathless prose so common to fund-raising letters, Ehrlich goes on to describe what he calls the Kennedy dream: "A big government welfare state with high taxes, feel-good social programs, and an overarching government-knows-best philosophy."
While Ehrlich has been attempting to project a moderate image in his campaign, the letter boasts about the contrast between his "conservative record" and Townsend's "liberal schemes."
Michael E. Morrill, Townsend's spokesman, said the campaign has received many calls from recipients of the letter -- both Republicans and Democrats.
"A lot of people thought the way it was worded was a slam on John F. Kennedy," Morrill said. "We had a lot of people saying, 'You've got him on the record saying he's a conservative, finally.'"
Morrill said that raising the specter of a Townsend race against Bush shows more about Republican fears than anything else. He said that Townsend, if elected, expects to serve at least a full four-year term as governor.
"She's made it very clear she plans on staying in Maryland for a long time," Morrill said.
Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University, said the tone of Ehrlich's letter "takes my breath away."
Crenson said the letter breaks two political rules: "You don't knock an assassinated president."
"You don't tout your opponent as a presidential candidate."
Crenson said the letter also could undercut Ehrlich's attempts to broaden his appeal beyond Republicans.
"This is not a 'reaching out to Democrats' letter. In fact, it tends to confirm the image Democrats have tried to portray of him as an exponent of the hard right," Crenson added.
Crenson said the notion of a Townsend candidacy in 2004 might seem more credible to voters far from Maryland.
"Probably a lot of these went to Texas," he said.
Asked why he decided to send such a letter, Ehrlich said it was in response to charges from interest groups that have painted him as an extremist on the issues of guns and abortion.
"They're attacking me. We kind of turned it on its head," Ehrlich said. "We just thought we'd have some fun."
Does he really believe Townsend will be on a national ticket?
"If she wins this race, who knows?" Ehrlich said. "The national publications have her on the short lists."
The letter is not the first in which Ehrlich has taken a swipe at Townsend for her family connection. "I grew up in a rowhouse, not a castle in Camelot," he wrote in a fund-raising letter last autumn.
Aside from showing that Democrats aren't the only ones who can use the Kennedy name to raise money, the letters underscore Ehrlich's penchant for positioning himself as an underdog candidate. He notes his first congressional race in 1994, "when no one gave me a chance."
That statement is a bit of a stretch because Ehrlich was the choice of party leaders soon after Republican Rep. Helen Delich Bentley -- for whom the district was tailor-made -- launched her unsuccessful run for governor. With a 3-to-1 money advantage over his nearest rival, he won the nomination by a comfortable margin. He beat Democratic Del. Gerry L. Brewster in the general election with 63 percent of the vote.
Ehrlich insisted yesterday that he was the underdog in 1994. "Brewster looked like a powerhouse," he said, adding that the Democrat was up 15 percentage points in the first poll.
Paul E. Schurick, a top Ehrlich campaign aide, dismissed the criticism of the letter.
"Fund-raising letters are designed to do one thing: raise funds," he said.