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Md. GOP's best hope


WHAT a difference a month makes. As November began, Rep. Robert Ehrlich was set to run for the U.S. Senate in 2000 after helping Republicans win the governor's mansion.

Now it is December, and Mr. Ehrlich is left with the stark realization that the Republican juggernaut, captained by Ellen Sauerbrey, has crashed.

Mr. Ehrlich must help put the pulverized state GOP back together. His future depends on it.

Maryland's GOP suffers from right-wing tilt -- much as the state's Democrats are troubled by their left-wing tilt. But state Democrats manage to keep their liberal-leaning inclinations in check. Their statewide candidates take centrist positions because they know most voters are centrists.

Republicans view such folks in their party as sellouts. That's how Ms. Sauerbrey walloped Rep. Helen Bentley in the 1994 GOP primary for governor.

That's also why hardened right-wingers turned against Ms. Sauerbrey for moderating her stands on abortion and gun control this year. They failed to turn out on Election Day. That'll teach her.

In the aftermath of the GOP's November fiasco, the struggle is over who will run the party apparatus. Will it be a darling of the conservative right or a (dare we use the word?) moderate.

Mr. Ehrlich wants to avoid acrimony when state GOP leaders gather next weekend. There's now a good chance that Richard Bennett will be elected party chairman without bloodshed.

That would be good news for Republicans. Mr. Bennett -- Ms. Sauerbrey's running mate in this year's election -- has a proven record of party-building in Baltimore County. He may be a centrist in his politics, but his heart belongs to the Republican Party.

Building unity

A unified GOP is essential in any rebuilding effort. It looks like a tough presidential year for Republicans in Maryland. There would be little hope of success if the state party is still splintered.

Without GOP unity, it would be fruitless for Mr. Ehrlich to abandon his safe congressional seat to take on incumbent Sen. Paul Sarbanes. Given what happened to Republicans this year, Mr. Sarbanes will go into the 2000 Senate race as a heavy favorite. He is extremely well liked within the Democratic Party, he has a seasoned election team, he connects with voters on the campaign trail and he's a proven fund-raiser.

While Mr. Sarbanes may be more liberal than most Maryland voters prefer, he comes across as earnest, caring and compassionate -- a small-town (Salisbury) boy from a working-class immigrant family who made good through brains and hard work in the big city (Baltimore).

At the moment, Mr. Sarbanes appears a lock for re-election. This could change, of course. Two years is a lifetime in politics. Mr. Ehrlich knows that.

Three-prong approach

The ambitious Baltimore County congressman is mapping a strategy that calls for a three-track approach.

* Track No. 1. Take on Mr. Sarbanes. If national Republican fortunes start to improve, and the presidential race looks competitive here, Mr. Ehrlich might run for the Senate. He'd portray Mr. Sarbanes as out of touch with centrist voters in the suburbs. He'd position himself as a mainstream conservative, in line with the likes of Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

* Track No. 2. Run for governor in 2002. The Democratic primary that year could be a free-for-all, creating an opening for the GOP. Mr. Ehrlich would run as a mainstream conservative, much as he was in his years in the House of Delegates. (His record in Congress, as a Newt Gingrich acolyte, could pose a barrier, though.)

* Track No. 3. Stay in Congress. This isn't a safe option because Democrats in Annapolis will redraw congressional boundaries in 2001. His new district could have a distinct Democratic feel. That could prompt Mr. Ehrlich to pursue Track No. 2.

To further his goals, the congressman is setting up two fund-raising committees -- the first for possible federal campaigns, the second for state campaigns. He's leaving nothing to chance.

Lack of issues

One of his problems could be the lack of cutting-edge issues. Ms. Sauerbrey's campaign foundered because her issues sounded tired and out of touch with the concerns of voters in 1998.

Mr. Ehrlich's challenge will be to find new slants on issues -- education, the environment, jobs, crime -- that come across as sensible problem-solving, not empty conservative rhetoric.

It looks like an uphill battle. That's not unusual for a Maryland Republican in a heavily Democratic state. Mr. Ehrlich is a bright, nimble and articulate politician. He shouldn't be underestimated.

Barry Rascovar, a deputy editorial page editor, is the author of "The Great Game of Maryland Politics."

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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