When you talk to Marina Hardy, you're locked in. She never loses eye contact.

"Ehrlich rocked it tonight," Hardy says to a few people in the main bar of the Field House in Canton last Thursday. Former Gov. Bob Ehrlich has just debated his opponent, Gov. Martin O'Malley, in D.C. Many had declared Ehrlich the winner and Hardy (left) was energized.

"Wasn't he great?" Hardy enthusiastically asks a friend. In Hardy's hands are stacks of blue-and-white Ehrlich bumper stickers and pink Ehrlich shirts. She places them on a table covered by a white cloth, and smooths out the shirt on top with her hand. She looks around the room, waves at friends and colleagues. And she checks her ever-present Blackberry.

Hardy, 28, is a young Republican. She and others are here, at this happy hour at the Field House for Young Professionals for Ehrlich. The young Republicans we spoke with don't practice politics as usual. They don't admire George W. Bush or Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin.

They don't want to fight; they want to cooperate. They say they want to make a difference, and you believe them.

They are, for the most part, socially liberal and fiscally conservative.

Even in Maryland, one of the bluest of blue states, they are a passionate voice. Across the nation, a surge of young energy is helping Republicans, who are likely to gain one or both houses of Congress on Nov. 2.

"I'm pumped," says Hardy, holding a Coors Light. "We all are."

The day before the party, Hardy sits in her office at Ehrlich headquarters in Annapolis. It is quiet in the early afternoon; Ehrlich is at a news conference in Baltimore.

A Coke can with a straw sits on Hardy's desk; a Ravens schedule is on her wall. The office is cubicle-sized. There's not even a door.

When Hardy talks on the phone, she dangles her left shoe off her heel. "I'm not the type of person who can sit still," she says.

Sitting still isn't an option. Hardy has been the Ehrlich campaign's coalitions coordinator since June, the official liaison between the campaign and any group that's "For Ehrlich" — Hispanics for Ehrlich, Women for Ehrlich, Teachers for Ehrlich, Sportsmen for Ehrlich.

"The best and worst thing about this job is talking with people — they are so upset and feel so disenfranchised and let down," Hardy says.

Hardy and those she speaks with support Ehrlich's plan to lower unemployment and bring more jobs to the state. "Young people want something different," she says. "We need something different."

A Navy brat (her father joined the Marines during Vietnam and retired Navy), Hardy was born in Annapolis but spent her childhood in Hawaii, Japan and Sweden. By ninth grade, she had been in nine schools.

Though Hardy's parents are both Democrats (she calls her mom a "hippie from California"), an early political influence was her godfather, Hal Kass. He was a child of Holocaust survivors who lived in Brooklyn, N.Y. The two would talk politics when she was 12.

"We talked about everything from national defense to civic involvement," she says later via e-mail. "He was always helping out the underdog, loaning fellow small businessmen and women start-ups capital."

Hardy says Kass, who died in 2002, inspired her to work hard and fight for what she believes in. Despite his wishes that she not pursue a career in politics — she never understood exactly why — Hardy studied political science at Mount St. Mary's University, where she was the president of the college Republicans.

The summer before her senior year, Hardy interned with the Maryland Comission on Indian Affairs. She worked with six American Indian tribes, most on the Eastern Shore. "I saw how much they felt ignored," she says. "I felt that I needed to be an advocate."

After law school, she took a job in 2007 with Southwest Airlines, as an area marketing manager for several regional offices. She was laid off last year when those offices closed.

"It was traumatic," says Hardy, who had to move back home with her parents and started folding shirts at J. Crew. "The wake-up call was watching 'Regis and Kelly.' They do a trivia question every day, and you had to have watched the day's previous episode to get it right.

"And," she says with horror, "I knew the answer."

After becoming a legislative aide to Del. Paul Stull (R-Frederick County),  Hardy joined the Ehrlich campaign in April, volunteering in Anne Arundel County before being named coalitions coordinator.

"I've talked with young Republicans, but also lifelong Democrats, people who voted for Obama," Hardy says. "All they want is someone to listen to them."

A Republican victory in Maryland is far from a slam dunk. Recent polls have had O'Malley up an average of eight to 10 points over Ehrlich. However, in a Gonzales Research Marketing poll released Tuesday, O'Malley holds a five-point advantage over Ehrlich.

Matthew Crenson, a political science professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins, says there's a little less than a 50-50 chance of a change in the governorship. But overall, he says, "Maryland is fated to remain a majority Democratic state."

During his four-decade career at Hopkins, Crenson has met many politically active young people; he used to moderate annual debates between the school's college Democrats and Republicans.

"The Republicans [in Maryland] tend to be a minority, but tend to be an ideologically committed minority," he says. "The young Republicans I've met tend to be very politically committed." They've also been moderate and socially liberal, with the ones on campuses skewing libertarian, he says.

Jake Weissmann, the 25-year-old president of Young Democrats of Maryland, says many of his good friends are Republicans — "That's not a line," he quickly adds. He also describes many of the Maryland young Republicans he meets as "moderate."

"Generally, they are good people who have a very different approach to politics and share some of my views," says Weissmann, who lives in Annapolis, where he's the assistant to state Senate Majority Leader Edward Kasemeyer. "They firmly believe in their convictions and are willing to work hard, but not all are willing to compromise."

"The Republican thing ... I'm much more of a young guy for Ehrlich," says Chris Barnhill, 28, the co-chair of Young Professionals for Ehrlich, as he orders a drink at Field House.

Barnhill, an MBA candidate at Johns Hopkins who lives in Fells Point, says he sees the rising prominence of young Republicans as reflective of people motivated to "stand up for what we believe is right." "We all want a change in Maryland," says Barnhill. "Younger people are paying taxes for the first time or struggling to find jobs. Everything is starting to affect us."

Barnhill is soon joined at the bar by Kelly Soth, his co-chair. They quickly point out that they intentionally left the word "Republicans" out of their organization's name.

"We don't like to be streamlined, to be pinned to just one side," says Soth, 25, an account manager for a wireless distributor who lives in Hunt Valley. "We're all moderates, for the most part. It's not hardcore. What you see on TV — that's entertainment."

Barnhill and Soth say they don't relate at all to the radical fringes in politics — like the Tea Party, which they consider polarizing — and don't like that everything is turned into a fight — "Democrats vs. Republicans." "When someone says, 'Chris, you're a Republican. You have to believe in this,' I just don't fall prey to that tactic," Barnhill says.

Brady Walker, 24, works at Ehrlich headquarters. "Our generation is very layered, and we have a very open-minded approach to issues," he says. "For us, it's more than just wanting to elect a Republican or a Democrat. It's electing their ideas."

Hardy's political views are just as varied as the other young Republicans interviewed

She's a fiscal conservative who is pro-choice, thinks gay marriage should be legal in Maryland (Ehrlich does not) and is "totally for" legalizing medical marijuana. Hardy says she'll even vote for a few Democrats on Nov. 2.

"I'm a Republican," she says. "But I don't define myself as a Republican."

At the office, Hardy takes a moment to answer a phone call. A few minutes later, she has a visitor — Trae Lewis (left), the 27-year-old president of the Baltimore Area Young Republicans. The two chat a bit about the campaign, the Young Professionals For Ehrlich party. They agree that people have misconceptions about young Republicans.

"I don't like how people view us," Lewis says. "It's going to yacht parties, wearing Brooks Brothers blazers."

Lewis, a Baltimore police officer, voted for Barack Obama. "I was with McCain ... until Palin," he explains.

"I align myself with fiscal responsibility, state rights issues, reining in government control. It just comes down to whether you think a politician's platform is misguided."

Lewis says that in the next 30 years, the Republican party will have to change — become more inclusive, more cooperative — or "it will be dead."

But Crenson is less optimistic that young Republicans in the state can completely change the party's core values and diversify it. "[The Republican Party] is still very much, and will very much be in the future, the party of Middle America," he says.

Weissmann is more hopeful that there could be a new era of bipartisanship when young leaders from both parties become the age when most are elected to office.

"Even now, we both truly do believe that we need to find areas for compromise," he says. "We truly believe that no one party has every right answer. It's a matter of listening, and all of us, both sides, want to listen a little more."


Courtney Brent, drinking beer at the party, grew up in a Republican household in Roland Park.

"From an early age, I was always thinking Republican," says the 28-year-old who tracks donations to the Ehrlich campaign in Timonium. "But I've always kept track and was aware of what Democrats are doing."

Brent, who lives in Towson, has felt the brunt of the recession. She was laid off from her job with a small investment firm when it was bought out by a large bank. Still she calls herself "very much a moderate Republican."

She's suddenly interrupted by the arrival of Kendel Ehrlich at the Field House, and immediately joined in the hoots and hollers and rousing applause.

Barnhill introduces Ehrlich, who speaks to the crowd enthusiastically but briefly. "We can't do this without you!" she says into a microphone. Ehrlich then reminds the crowd of "the young people who have done so much for the campaign."

Later, Brent talks about Republicans she never connected with. George W. Bush "was an OK president," she allows. As for Palin, "I think ... Alaska works for her," she says. "It's a very strange place."

When asked about the one thing she would say to someone who asked why she's a Republican, Brent scrunches her forehead before answering. "I'd say, 'I believe in charity and non-profits,'" she says. "'But when I make my money, I want to keep it for myself.'"

Throughout the night at the Field House, Hardy continues to talk to fellow staffers about Ehrlich's debate performance. They agree O'Malley seemed wooden and too well-coached.

Hardy is particularly incensed that O'Malley decided not to answer what his favorite song was. "I mean, who can't name their favorite song?" Hardy asks Walker. "Who can't name one song? Ask me my favorite song."

"What's your favorite song?" Walker asks. There's no hesitation from Hardy.

"It's 'Don't Stop Believin'," she says.

Jordan Bartel is assistant editor at b. E-mail him at jordan@bthesite.com or follow him on Twitter, @jordanbartel.

Hardy and Lewis portrait shots by Brian Krista, b; Ehrlich/O'Mallery — AP