When he was 11, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced to his mother that when he grew up he wanted to run for political office.
"I said, 'You don't want to do that. Politicians are crooked,' " Nancy Ehrlich recalled this week at a $250-a-head fund-raiser for her son, who is now 35, a veteran of the House of Delegates and running for Congress. "He looked at me and said, 'Mom, I won't be.' And he won't. He's so honest, it hurts sometimes."
Many Republicans, and quite a few Democrats in the 2nd Congressional District, believe that Robert Ehrlich of Timonium is one of the best and brightest in the GOP and hope to see him fill the seat being vacated by Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, the popular, five-term Republican who is running for governor.
While the district has two registered Democrats for every Republican, it has voted Republican in recent years, electing Mrs. Bentley to five terms in Congress. Sixty-three percent of the county's voters voted for George Bush or Ross Perot in 1992.
Count Dennis F. Rasmussen, the former Baltimore County executive who is now a lobbyist, among those Democrats who would like to see Mr. Ehrlich in Congress.
Mr. Rasmussen was present Monday night at the home of Edwin F. Hale, chairman of the Bank of Baltimore. It was there that the $250-a-head fund-raiser was held, and Mr. Rasmussen had turned out to support Mr. Ehrlich.
This was despite the fact that Mr. Ehrlich is a Republican, and that a possible opponent of Mr. Ehrlich's in the general election is Del. Gerry L. Brewster, a Democrat who once worked for Mr. Rasmussen when he was executive.
Mr. Rasmussen grew up in Essex at a time when Eastside Democrats dominated Baltimore County politics by always voting the party line.
But, Mr. Rasmussen says, "I've come to a point in my life where I'm going to support the best person."
'Far and away the best'
Mr. Hale said of Mr. Ehrlich, "Of all the people I've seen running, Bob is by far and away the best one qualified to fill [Mrs. Bentley's] shoes." He described Mr. Ehrlich as "a good man -- you can go to sleep on his word" -- who possesses "a lot of common sense."
As Mr. Ehrlich campaigns in the primary, he stresses his %J conservative views -- strong support for business, a tough stance on crime and fiscal conservatism -- while also pointing to his eight years in Annapolis and how he managed to work well with Democrats.
"I was successful because I built coalitions between Democrats and Republicans," he said. "I never let party stop me, if I thought it was right."
Legislators who worked closely with Mr. Ehrlich in Annapolis agree with that assessment.
"His ability to work both sides of the aisle is a model," said Del. Phillip D. Bissell, a Republican from Anne Arundel County.
Del. Bruce Poole, a Democrat from Hagerstown, said he had many arguments with Mr. Ehrlich over legislation and opposing viewpoints on issues, but that he still respected him as a "hard-working, substantive guy."
"There is a side of Bob that is partisan, but he can put that aside," Delegate Poole said.
A GOP foe is critical
A not-unexpected critic is William J. Frank, a Towson banker considered to be Mr. Ehrlich's major opposition in the Sept. 13 Republican primary. Mr. Frank, 33, said Mr. Ehrlich should not accept money from political action committees, or PACs.
As of the latest campaign financing report, Mr. Ehrlich had received $36,300 in PAC contributions.
Mr. Frank said he has refused to accept "special interest" money. Mr. Frank also supports term limits in Congress and is anti-abortion. Mr. Ehrlich is against term limits and supports abortion rights.
Next week, the two Republicans will square off in a debate in Harford County. Mr. Frank said he's eager to contrast his conservative views against those of Mr. Ehrlich.
Mr. Ehrlich said he also is eager to debate the issues and is confident, but not overconfident, of winning the primary.
If his background is any guide, he will be difficult to defeat in the primary election, and he would be a strong candidate in the general election.
Mr. Ehrlich grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Arbutus.
He was a good student, and an excellent athlete, who, at age 13, was 6 feet and 175 pounds and playing football with 17- to 21-year-olds, his parents said.
Recruited by the Gilman School football coach, Mr. Ehrlich attended the prestigious private school on a scholarship and was captain of the football team.
He attended Princeton University on a full scholarship and graduated from there, said Robert L. Ehrlich Sr., 64, a semiretired car sales- man.
Delegate Ehrlich later graduated from Wake Forest University School of Law, and was first elected to the state legislature in 1986, representing the 10th District. His wife, Kendel, is an assistant public defender in Anne Arundel County.
The elder Mr. Ehrlich recently recalled that his son would work construction during breaks at Princeton to earn spending money.
"He did all of this on his own," said Robert Ehrlich Sr.
& "We never pushed him."