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Ehrlich in 2002? That depends on Bush in 2000


This week's Republican National Convention in Philadelphia will serve as a political cotillion for U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the GOP's chief hope to run for Maryland governor in 2002.

Ehrlich supporters will sponsor a small fund-raiser tomorrow, followed by a larger party on Wednesday sponsored by Comcast Communications, a company whose business interests stand to be affected by legislation reviewed by the House Commerce Committee on which Ehrlich serves.

The events will highlight the 42-year-old Baltimore County lawyer whose political power has grown steadily since Republicans took over Congress in 1994.

Yet Ehrlich's decision on the governor's race will depend to a substantial degree on the fortunes of one man: the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush. If Bush fares well with Maryland voters in November, Ehrlich said, he will likely gamble his comfortable congressional seat to seek the governorship in a state where Democrats outnumber Republican voters by a ratio of 2-to-1.

"Bobby Ehrlich is the star of our party and would be the strongest contender for governor," said state GOP Chairman Richard D. Bennett. "This election is very crucial, not only nationally but here in Maryland."

Ehrlich, an Arbutus native and Timonium resident, who was elected to the House of Delegates in 1986 at age 28, is poised to assume the mantle of leadership of the state GOP. If Bush wins, much of the federal funding coming to Maryland would likely flow through Ehrlich, boosting his visibility and prominence.

A Bush victory would also give a much-needed boost to a state party that has been on the ropes for two years.

In 1994, Ellen R. Sauerbrey cut through the thick Democratic political opposition, losing by less than 6,000 votes in her first bid for the governor's mansion. But a disappointing Sauerbrey defeat in 1998 has left Republicans looking for someone to step forward in what is one of the nation's more liberal states, and where no Republican has served as governor for 32 years.

"We've had two strong efforts," said Bennett. "It will be extremely important for Bush to do well to attract good candidates for 2002. A poor performance will discourage those who are considering running."

Ehrlich has much at stake. He has safely occupied the seat in the 2nd District, which has re-elected him to Congress two times by margins that average 65 percent. And the one-time Gilman School and Princeton University football linebacker has moved steadily higher in the Republican congressional hierarchy.

In addition to being deputy to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, Ehrlich sits on the finance committee of the National Republican Congressional Committee. As one of several vice chairmen of that organization, he raises money for other candidates. The post also affords him a base for attracting campaign support for future political forays of his own.

"I have a great seat and a great committee," Ehrlich said of his Commerce Committee position. "It's not a bad spot for a member of Congress."

The political clout that goes with being in the party that controls Congress could be threatened in the November election. Republicans hold the House by a six-vote margin. If Democrats regain control in November, Ehrlich said, he would likely lean toward entering the governor's race.

Although the field of Democratic candidates to succeed Gov. Parris N. Glendening is still forming, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend appears to be the early front-runner. The daughter of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy could be a daunting foe because of her Kennedy name recognition.

"I like him, he's a good man," state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer said of Ehrlich. "But he'll lose.

"Politics is timing," added Schaefer, a Democrat who backed GOP President George Bush in 1992, "knowing when to run and when not to run."

Republican supporters, however, are less convinced that the Democratic nominee will be unbeatable. They contend that Ehrlich has built a broad base of support that includes swing Democrats.

"He has a common touch," said Robert O. C. Worcester, president of Maryland Business for Responsive Government, a conservative Annapolis lobbying group. "He relates equally well to both D's and R's."

Ehrlich has no doubt that he has already become "target No. 1" for Maryland Democrats. And he expects the Democratic-controlled General Assembly to try to weaken the GOP strength in his district when it redraws legislative boundaries based on this year's census.

Ehrlich, who backed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," is hawkish on defense issues, invariably pro-business and a proponent of tax cuts.

He angered black state officials in 1995 when he helped neutralize a desegregation settlement between Baltimore and the federal government that would have given 1,350 low-income families vouchers to rent private apartments or houses in Baltimore's white suburbs.

"He tries to paint a moderate image, but if you tear off the veneer, it's the same old conservative candidate," said Vincent DeMarco, an anti-gun and anti-tobacco lobbyist. "Bob Ehrlich will have the same fate in Maryland as Ellen Sauerbrey."

Ehrlich said that he will have to make a decision on whether to run for governor within the first six months of next year in order to compete in what will undoubtedly be a campaign fund-raising frenzy. The decision process starts tomorrow when the Republican National Convention kicks off in Philadelphia.

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