Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., regarded by Republicans as their best hope of regaining the Maryland State House, said yesterday that he is "inclined" to enter next year's race for governor and challenged Democrats who have urged him to run to back up their words with cash.
The Baltimore County congressman said he has formed an exploratory committee and issued a "very strong challenge" to his supporters to generate endorsements, volunteers and money.
Ehrlich set a goal of raising $2 million over the next six to eight weeks, but said he would be paying just as much attention to where the money is coming from as the amount. He said he wants to see Democratic business leaders, many of them allies of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, contribute in a way that makes their support public.
"It's a more relevant challenge than the Republican support or Republican dollars," Ehrlich said. "It's not simply money. It's being willing to put your name on the line."
Ehrlich, 43, continued to leave himself room to back down from a challenge to the state's dominant Democrats, who hold a voter registration advantage of almost 2-1.
"Exploratory committees have one job -- to explore," he said. He would not rule out running for re-election to Congress, and said it would be "probably a bit premature" for other Republicans to begin lining up for his 2nd District seat.
If Ehrlich decides to run, it could set the stage for a nationally watched clash with Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a Democrat who in recent polls leads Ehrlich and potential challengers from her party.
Ehrlich issued his challenge at a private meeting of his campaign finance committee yesterday morning. But his message -- as relayed by a key aide -- became garbled in the retelling, resulting in incorrect reports that he had definitively decided to run.
The different accounts relayed by committee members and political director Paul Schurick spread confusion through Maryland political circles. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the GOP's unsuccessful nominee in 1994 and 1998, said she heard two versions: that Ehrlich was definitely running and that he would run if supporters could raise $2 million.
According to Ehrlich, who spent considerable time yesterday clarifying his intentions, neither version was precisely correct. He said he would make a final determination by the end of the fall.
One Maryland political analyst said Ehrlich and his people have been sending a far less equivocal message in private. "The fact is they're running for governor. They're communicating it to all their fund-raisers" and the Republican National Committee, said Keith Haller, president of a Bethesda-based polling firm.
Sauerbrey said Republicans are waiting "with bated breath" for a firm decision. "There's no question that Bob will be an articulate, attractive, dynamic candidate that Republicans will rally around, and he is clearly the best candidate for this office," she said.
Townsend would not comment directly on Ehrlich's news, which came the day after President Bush spoke to Congress about the attack Sept. 11 on New York and the Pentagon.
"There's no partisanship in America right now. Right now I'm working side by side with Congressman Ehrlich and the entire Maryland congressional delegation on the extraordinary bipartisan challenge our country is facing -- outlined so eloquently by the president," she said in a statement relayed through an aide.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry, both of whom have been mentioned as possible Democratic challengers to Townsend, said Ehrlich's decision will not affect their political plans.
Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a possible Democratic candidate for governor or for Ehrlich's congressional seat, could not be reached for comment. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley declined to comment on Ehrlich's plans, but said he thought the timing was strange for a political announcement.
"I find it real hard to think about politics or imagine future campaigns in the context of what our country's going through right now," he said.
If Ehrlich runs, he would be attempting to end decades of frustration for Republicans in Maryland. The GOP has not elected a governor since 1966, though Sauerbrey came tantalizingly close in 1994. An Ehrlich candidacy would ensure that the party would have a credible, well-financed standard-bearer who would energize Republican turnout.
If Ehrlich does not run, the best-known Republican waiting in the wings is Audrey Scott, a Prince George's County councilwoman. Scott said yesterday that she is confident that Ehrlich will run and win. But she added that if he doesn't become a candidate, she's available.
Ehrlich said that many members of the opposing party have privately urged him to run, adding that about a third of the participants in yesterday's meeting were Democrats.
He said he wants business leaders who have asked him to run to contribute before Oct. 30, the end of the current campaign finance reporting period. Gifts received by then would become public in November, letting Gov. Parris N. Glendening and other Democrats know where donors stand.
"Let the monopoly see it," Ehrlich said, using his term for the ruling Democratic Party. "In politics, at many times, it's 'Are you with us or are you not?'"