When President Bush flew into Maryland to raise some quick cash for the state Republican Party last month, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. chose two people to join him on the dais to warm up the crowd before the president's arrival: the state party chairman and Kristen Cox, a petite blonde not readily recognized by the audience of political insiders.
But the appearance that day of Cox, the Maryland disabilities secretary, sent the State House buzz machine into overdrive. There had to be meaning in such a high-profile show, and as Ehrlich announces his re-election campaign today, her name is rumored to be at the top of his short list for lieutenant governor.
Cox's selection, while unlikely at first blush, would be politically savvy and loaded with symbolism, experts say.
A mother of two and a Mormon, Cox is legally blind as a result of a degenerative genetic disease that struck when she was a child. Though she has never run for office and hails from the advocacy community, not the battle-tested political world, her disability - and the grace with which friends and colleagues say she has handled the accompanying challenges - would make it tough for Democrats to attack her on the campaign trail.
"It's one of these situations in which it becomes morally reproachable to criticize a nominee," said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University who follows campaigns. "Which politically is very clever, but in terms of getting the best person for the job, it certainly falls short."
However, those who know Cox well say that whatever policy and political experience she lacks, she would make up for with solid people skills and a true commitment to lobbying for the rights of the disability community.
"She has the natural ability to understand public issues and to convert that into action to resolve them," said James Gashel, executive director of the National Federation of the Blind, where Cox worked before entering government.
Ehrlich is due to launch his re-election campaign today from his parents' home in Arbutus, and his running-mate pick is expected to be revealed before the end of the week.
Other names in circulation include Secretary of State Mary D. Kane; Howard County Sen. Sandra B. Schrader; Housing and Community Development Department Secretary Victor L. Hoskins; Trent E. Kittleman, the executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority; and Planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott.
It is Cox, though, who presents the most potentially compelling addition to Ehrlich's team.
A Utah native and graduate of Brigham Young University, Cox is the state's first disabilities secretary. Ehrlich elevated the position to Cabinet-level status in 2004. A pick of Cox would underscore the governor's efforts to recast himself as a "compassionate conservative." It is a description that helped him win election in 2002 as the state's first Republican governor in three decades, but which his opponents insist he has since abandoned.
Baker likened a Cox choice to that in 2002 of Michael S. Steele, who became the state's first black lieutenant governor and is running for U.S. Senate. These kinds of firsts, Baker said, help the GOP sell a "big-tent Republicanism."
"It's part of a staging of a political drama," Baker said. "Rather than the plot, it's the costumes."
Cox was not born blind, said Deidre McCabe, a spokeswoman for the Department of Disabilities. About age 11 or 12, her vision started to decline, growing substantially worse in college, where she had to memorize most of the material. She is left with minor peripheral vision, and can see darkness and light out of her left eye, McCabe added. Cox often uses a cane.
McCabe said Cox did not learn to read Braille until her mid-20s when she had her first son. She wanted to be able to read to him.
Cox was recruited from the Utah chapter of the National Federation of the Blind to work as assistant director of governmental affairs in the group's office in Baltimore, where she served from 1999 to 2001. She represented the organization, an advocacy group with 50,000 members, before government agencies and Congress, Gashel said.
From there, the Bush administration selected her to serve as an adviser to the Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration of the Department of Education. As head of the Department of Disabilities, Cox manages 25 people and a budget of $4.9 million.
Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who is supporting Mayor Martin O'Malley's gubernatorial campaign, said voters are typically not swayed by the lieutenant governor candidate. "This campaign is about Ehrlich's record, and it's about what he has not accomplished for Marylanders," McIntosh said.
If Ehrlich picks Cox, he won't be a trailblazer. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a Democratic candidate for governor, has tapped Harlem state Sen. David A. Paterson, who at 51 is legally blind, as his running mate.
Still, Brian Cox, executive director of the nonpartisan Maryland Disabilities Council, said Kristen Cox (no relation) would be an asset to Ehrlich's ticket.
"She's a very quick study," he said. "She's a very strong disability advocate, and she has very progressive values."
Sun reporter Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.