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Ehrlich set for election face-off

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the past two tumultuous weeks, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has seen one of his potential opponents suddenly drop out of the race. He has called a special session of the General Assembly to deal with the coming spike in BGE rates, vetoed the bill that resulted and watched as legislators overrode him.

But as he prepares to announce his re-election bid this week, Ehrlich finds himself right where he always expected to be: in a tooth-and-nail general election fight against Mayor Martin O'Malley, ready to promote his accomplishments as governor and bash the Democrat for his record in running Baltimore.

Political experts, elected officials and campaign workers say the BGE saga and the withdrawal of Democrat Douglas M. Duncan from the race will add some wrinkles to the campaign. But for all the shock waves those developments sent through the state, they won't fundamentally alter the grudge match that's been developing for several years between two of the state's biggest political personalities.

"The die is cast. The line is drawn in the sand. Each side is mobilizing their armies," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a policy research and polling firm in Bethesda. "It's about to be a battle royal like nothing before in Maryland politics."

Ehrlich has stayed on the sidelines in the governor's race for months, saying he would let O'Malley and Duncan slug it out and then join the fight - with a campaign treasury of as much as $20 million - when a Democratic nominee emerged.

But he has been laying the groundwork for his run. In December, he hired a campaign manager, and in the past few months, staffers have migrated from his office on the second floor of the State House to the campaign headquarters in a nondescript Towson office building.

On Wednesday, the governor plans to return to his boyhood home, an Arbutus rowhouse where his parents still live, to formally announce he is running for re-election.

The next day, he is expected to announce a new running mate to replace Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who is running for U.S. Senate. Ehrlich turned heads in 2002 by picking Steele, who became the first African-American elected to statewide office.

Ehrlich has said that his choice of running mate this time will make less difference because he is now a well-known quantity to voters across the state. Most political experts agree with him.

"The most important thing is for him to find someone who will be a confident and competent campaign presence," said James Gimpel, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It might help marginally with crossover voters to have a woman or a minority."

Most of the names circulating in the rumor mill fit one of those categories. The most talked-about contender among Republicans in recent days is Kristen Cox, secretary of Maryland's Department of Disabilities, who is legally blind. She has no experience in electoral politics, but Ehrlich has long been interested in disabilities issues, and her presence on the ticket could help remind voters of this compassionate side of the governor.

Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a Howard County Republican, has long been considered a contender, but her stock might have dropped when she bucked Ehrlich and voted for the Democrats' BGE rate plan. She did, however, switch back to his side Friday when she voted to sustain his veto.

Other possibilities include Housing and Community Development Secretary Victor L. Hoskins, who is African-American; Business and Economic Development Secretary Aris Melissaratos; and Maryland Transportation Authority Executive Secretary Trent M. Kittleman.

Ehrlich aired the first television commercial of his campaign last week, a spot designed to bolster his image as a moderate. O'Malley also went to the airwaves earlier in the month and he, too, stuck to a positive message, promoting his vision for Maryland and his leadership.

But virtually no one in Maryland political circles expects the two sides to stay nice for long. For O'Malley and Ehrlich, this election is personal.

"They do seem to have a tendency to irritate each other much more than you might think," said Carol L. Hirschburg, a Republican strategist who is close to the governor.

Scott Reed, chairman of Chesapeake Enterprises, a Republican political consulting firm in Washington, said voters can expect a "smack-down wrestling match" in which Ehrlich will use his financial advantage - he had twice as much cash on hand as O'Malley in the most recent campaign finance reports - to attack the mayor.

"It's going to come down to defining O'Malley before he has a chance to define himself outside of Baltimore," Reed said.

The governor's main lines of attack are likely to be ones he's been tossing O'Malley's way for some time, including criticism of Baltimore's crime rate and schools. Minutes after news broke that Duncan would drop out of the race, Ehrlich said he was ready to "focus on ... the horrific nature of the O'Malley record."

The mayor has seized on Ehrlich's handling of the BGE issue to paint him as a creature of corporate interests, not the people. He has relentlessly attacked the governor's appointees on the Public Service Commission, and he filed a lawsuit to stop Ehrlich's BGE rate increase deferral plan in hopes of getting a better deal.

O'Malley's victory in that suit is widely credited as the catalyst for the special session in which the General Assembly enacted a new rates plan. Ehrlich's veto gave O'Malley more fuel for his attacks.

"It's hard enough for working families to make ends meet without having to fight their own governor at the same time at every turn," O'Malley said Friday. "The number of times, the frequency, the petulance with which he has used his veto powers have almost made him irrelevant to the governing process."

The governor said yesterday that he will continue the BGE fight on the campaign trail, but many political strategists said they expect the issue to fade and the candidates to return to the predictable script.

"This is going to go off the radar screen by August, and then we can start talking all about the failing schools, the crime, the murder rate in Baltimore," said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, the Republican whip from Baltimore County. "We're going to get back to the kind of issues that people will care about in the long run."

Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who is not seeking re-election, said his constituents are upset about the rise in BGE rates, about the deregulation of the electric industry and with the way the issue was handled by their elected leaders. But he said the issue has grown so confusing that many don't know where to focus their anger.

Instead, he said, the dominant factor in his district will be a broad sentiment about the race, not a single issue. Ehrlich won over the conservative Democrats in Jimeno's district in 2002 not because of his own appeal, the senator said, but because of voters' antipathy toward his opponent: then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

"They like Martin O'Malley," Jimeno said.

Ehrlich has a tremendous advantage as an incumbent. No incumbent governor in Maryland has lost re-election in decades, and he can now use the considerable powers of his office to keep himself in the news.

But he must contend in a state in which Democrats hold a 2-1 advantage in voter registration, at a time when the popularity of the sitting Republican president and Congress are low.

Many of those watching the race said Duncan, in announcing his withdrawal, sent a powerful signal to his party to unite and return the State House to Democratic hands. He endorsed O'Malley, and Democrats say they expect the mayor will easily be able to win the support of Duncan voters and campaign contributors.

Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat and early Duncan supporter, said Democrats found themselves in the position this year of picking between two excellent candidates to challenge a governor who has disappointed and angered them at every turn.

"When Martin O'Malley calls to ask me for my support, he's going to have to pull me out of Mass because I'm going to be there praying for his victory," Madaleno said.

Ehrlich said Friday that none of the recent developments has changed his plans. He said he has always known that Democrats would unite to try to unseat him, and he has long been ready to make O'Malley "defend the undefensible."

Duncan and O'Malley have been consistently ahead of the governor in published polls, but O'Malley always came out ahead of the county executive in the primary race. People close to the governor say his campaign wasn't spending much time preparing for a match-up against Duncan but that Ehrlich has been itching to take on O'Malley for a long time.

"The general election started at 11:06 p.m. on Nov. 5, 2002," Ehrlich said, noting the minute he learned he had won the election. "If you look at the O'Malley campaign, they've treated this as one-on-one from Day 1. Quite frankly, this is no big change for us, either."

andy.green@baltsun.com

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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