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Bush backs Ehrlich's campaign at benefit


Despite President Bush's record-low approval ratings in Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. welcomed him to a Baltimore-area fundraiser yesterday that Republican officials say brought in $1 million for the Maryland GOP.

"Mr. President, it's a big deal to have you here," the Republican governor told a crowd of about 200 gathered in a ballroom at the BWI Airport Marriott. "We thank you for supporting us, the citizens of Maryland."

Though Ehrlich, who faces re-election this fall in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly two to one, said he was pleased to stand with Bush, his partner in the State House -- Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a candidate for U.S. Senate -- was absent.

Steele, who aides said was attending a fundraiser in Las Vegas for his campaign, was mentioned once in passing by the president. The bulk of Bush's comments focused on Ehrlich, who in 2002 was the first Republican elected governor in Maryland in nearly four decades and who this year is expected to raise record money -- $20 million by some estimates -- for his campaign.

"In our line of work, there's a lot of big talkers, and sometimes you find a doer," Bush said. "Somebody who knows how to set an agenda and lead people to accomplish that agenda. Bob Ehrlich is a doer. He's a great leader, and he needs to be re-elected governor of the state of Maryland."

In remarks before Bush took the stage, Ehrlich told the audience that the 2006 election in Maryland is "about the 14/5 initiative" -- an effort to win for the GOP 14 seats in the House of Delegates and five in the state Senate. He said the Republican Party must make those gains in order to force the Democrats, who hold veto-proof majorities in both chambers, "to deal with reality."

"This is about a competitive, two-party state," Ehrlich said. "It's about realignment in Maryland. As we said last time, if multiparty democracy can break out in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, it can break out in Maryland."

Some state Democratic leaders slammed Ehrlich for appearing with Bush, saying that victories for Ehrlich and Steele in November would amount to an endorsement of the administration's "failed policies." Bush's approval ratings in Maryland have lingered in the 30s in recent months.

"Maryland families will face a very clear choice this November: Republican candidates who seek to rubber-stamp a Bush agenda that has spawned record deficits and spiraling debts, and failed to make America as safe as it possibly can be, or Democrats determined to take our state and nation in a different direction," U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, said in a statement.

David Paulson, communications director for the Maryland Democratic Party, said Steele's decision not to attend was a telling reminder of the president's plummeting popularity. To date, Steele's campaign has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars at fundraisers hosted by Bush, former President George H.W. Bush, presidential adviser Karl Rove and former White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., among other top GOP officials.

"When the president from your party comes to your state, you usually show up," Paulson said. "This attempt to distance himself from his own president won't work."

But Ehrlich, who was joined on the dais by Maryland GOP Chairman John Kane, showed yesterday that he was pleased to shake the president's hand in public, to share stories of their avowedly superior wives (they both "married up," Ehrlich said) and to endure presidential jokes about his athletic prowess. Bush needled Ehrlich for not being able to reach a basketball net. A former college football player, Ehrlich winced, but appeared to shake it off.

The governor rattled off a laundry list of accomplishments that he said Bush has helped achieve for Maryland, including what he said has been the creation of 10,000 jobs in the state, more money for charter schools and support for the Intercounty Connector, a new highway through the Washington suburbs that won federal approval this week and big applause yesterday from the audience.

Bush, meanwhile, lauded Ehrlich for sharing his brand of compassionate conservatism -- and for believing, as he said he does, that tax cuts help to boost the economy, that protecting the environment does not preclude support for big business and that there is room for faith in political life.

"Government should not fear the involvement of faith in our society," Bush said.

Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party, said that the fundraiser brought in about $1 million but would not say how much tickets to the event cost.

Before Bush took the stage, a smattering of attendees mingled in a low-ceilinged hall while higher-dollar givers in an adjacent ballroom had their pictures taken with the president. In the audience were Board of Regents Chairman David H. Nevins, Ehrlich campaign finance director Richard E. Hug, Business and Economic Development Secretary Aris Melissaratos and the governor's parents, among others.

When the president left, a team of black-clad waiters and servers wearing chef's hats brought out trays of small crab cakes, large bowls of Caesar salad and carving trays with hunks of steak. Donors drank red and white wine as they circulated.

Ehrlich declined several requests to answer reporters' questions about the event. He dispatched his spokesman, Greg Massoni, to field inquiries about why Steele had not showed up for the reception.

Massoni dismissed as "ridiculous" a report in yesterday's editions of The Sun detailing Steele's decision to attend a fundraiser in Las Vegas rather than one in his backyard with an unpopular president.

"We invited the president here tonight. You can't be running away from the president when you invite him to come," Massoni said. "We're not running away from anything."

Asked about Bush's effusive praise of Ehrlich and his glancing mention of Steele, Massoni said, "He's here for a victory party for the state of Maryland, in which you have a governor who's done a terrific job, and he's promoting the fact that that governor should be re-elected."

Sun reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this story.

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