The Maryland Republican Party has hired a former aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele as its executive director, filling the vacancy left by the abrupt departure of David Ferguson in August.

State party Chairwoman Diana Waterman announced Monday that Joe Cluster, who served as Steele's director of external affairs in 2004-2007, would head the day-to-day operations of the GOP.

Cluster, 34, is a veteran of the GOP's victorious 2002 gubernatorial election campaign, when Ehrlich became the first Republican to win the office since 1966. After serving as a cooordinator in the GOP's field operation in that campaign, he worked in the governor's appointments office.

Most recently, Cluster has served as an aide to Harford County Councilman Joseph M. Woods.

Cluster said his first objective as executive direcror will be to help stabilize the state party's finances so the GOP doesn't have to "beg, borrow and steal" to maintain its operations.

Cluster said he sees opportunities to make gains "all over the state" but particularly in Southern Maryland, eastern Baltimore County and Western Maryland.

Though he come to the state party from Harford, where County Executive David R. Craig is running for the GOP nomination for governor, Cluster said he will be a neutral in that contest.

"The party's role will be to support whoever comes out of the primary," Cluster said.