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Poster Boys

THE MERE thought of the contest puts the wow into politics. The theoretical dream matchup between Maryland's two hunks is officially under way, the closest the state has ever come to sex-symbol politics.

An actual face-off between Mayor Martin O'Malley, Democrat, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Republican, may never happen, but the blood-rush of a prospective contest will dominate political conversation for the next three years.

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And what a matchup it would be, two Ken dolls who have more in common - on paper, at least - than the political differences that separate them. Both have the qualities of a rock star, which, in fact, one of them is, as well as ambition that has brought them national attention.

For nearly a week, Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Ehrlich appeared to be dueling for media attention in the detritus of Tropical Storm Isabel, an accidental talking-head juxtaposition that appeared to be the launch of campaigns to come. Yet each in his way was doing what leaders do in times of crisis - lead.

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The popular Mr. O'Malley is fresh off an impressive second-term primary victory, a white man with 66 percent of the vote in a city that's 67 percent black. The equally popular Mr. Ehrlich is also a myth breaker and a giant killer, winning last year by 66,000 votes in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1, and defeating a Kennedy to boot. Both their approval ratings in the polls are sizzling.

Mr. O'Malley, 40, and Mr. Ehrlich, 45, exude sex appeal, spoofed on Seinfeld as kavorka, the lure of the animal.

Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Ehrlich are jocks. Mr. O'Malley pumps iron and sports a black muscle T-shirt when he fronts his band, O'Malley's March. Mr. Ehrlich, high school and college football standout, plays basketball with legislators at their Tuesday night pickup games and works out in the exercise room at the governor's mansion.

Mr. O'Malley is a skilled and captivating speaker, often ad-libbing eloquently, working his rhetorical mojo on many a diverse group or room. Mr. Ehrlich's oratory, less soaring, contains the chipped edge of Arbutus and a down-home resonance that's very effective in campaign and political settings. Put another way, both have the gift of connectivity, the very quiddity of any successful politician.

The two wear the chevrons of high-IQ schools - for Mr. O'Malley, Gonzaga, Catholic University and the University of Maryland School of Law, and for Mr. Ehrlich, Gilman, Princeton and Wake Forest University Law School. And both have legal and legislative backgrounds - Mr. O'Malley as a two-term City Council member and an assistant state's attorney, and Mr. Ehrlich as a two-term member of the House of Delegates and four-term member of Congress and a private practice lawyer.

Each has a portrait-perfect family. And both are married to lawyers, Mr. O'Malley to the former Catherine Curran, a former prosecutor and now a District Court judge and daughter of Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. Mr. Ehrlich's wife, Kendel, is a former prosecutor as well as a public defender. The O'Malleys have four children, including a toddler, and the Ehrlichs have one, 4-year-old Drew, himself a promising campaigner.

Mr. O'Malley is a rascal, pure and simple, proud and profane. He can turn the air blue with his potty mouth curses and once even threatened to pummel a talk-show host by kicking the expletive deleted out of him. Mr. Ehrlich, too, has a rapscallion edge, but has never been reported to have blistered the air (at least in public) with locker room language.

But the verisimilitude ends there.

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Mr. O'Malley is a centrist Democrat with a tilt to the left, more of a managerial creature than an ideological banshee. Mr. Ehrlich, by contrast, describes himself as a "libertarian conservative," a broad appellation that allows him enough wiggle room to be in favor of both abortion rights and medicinal pot-smoking at the same time he supports capital punishment and less-restrictive gun controls.

In politics, performance is autobiography. For the next three years, Mr. O'Malley will grapple with the menacing plagues of big-city problems such as crime, drugs and neighborhood blight, while Mr. Ehrlich deals with his own demons of a billion-dollar deficit and a Democratic legislature with a determination of its own. It's watch-and-wait time.

Advice to Mr. Ehrlich: Form a rock band.

Frank A. DeFilippo, who was press secretary to former Gov. Marvin Mandel, has been writing about Maryland politics for more than 40 years.


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