Governor says he has earned a second term

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. returned yesterday to the modest Arbutus rowhouse where he grew up to formally announce his campaign for re-election, saying that he has fulfilled his promises to the people and needs four more years to put Maryland on the right path.

The 48-year-old Republican emphasized his progress in eliminating budget deficits in Annapolis, cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and stopping Democrats in the General Assembly from raising taxes. He did not outline a platform for his second term but said he deserves another four years in Annapolis because he has done what he said he would.

"You better follow up on your commitments. You better keep your word. You better put dollars where you said you would. ... You've got to keep your commitments," Ehrlich said to hundreds of his supporters who turned Dolores Avenue into a virtual block party, with a live band and a hot dog stand.

"I sincerely hope the reason you're out here today in the hot sun is the keeping of commitments, and the hot dogs ain't bad, either," Ehrlich said.

Today, the governor plans to follow up his announcement by naming a new running mate to replace Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who is running for the U.S. Senate. Several names have circulated for several months, but a source close to the governor said last night that Kristen Cox, the secretary of the state Department of Disabilities, will be the nominee.

Standing on his parents' front porch with his shirtsleeves rolled up, Ehrlich displayed the everyman charm and humor that have kept his personal popularity high throughout his term. But his easygoing manner yesterday belied the difficulty of the race at hand.

No incumbent governor in Maryland has lost a re-election bid since 1950, but Ehrlich comes into this race as the self-proclaimed underdog. He leads a state where Democrats have a roughly 2-to-1 advantage in voter registration and faces an aggressive challenge from Mayor Martin O'Malley, the presumed Democratic nominee, whose base of support extends into the Baltimore suburbs that were the key to Ehrlich's victory four years ago.

Ehrlich has trailed O'Malley in every published poll for months, including a new survey released by The Washington Post yesterday that showed him with an 11-point deficit among registered voters and 16 points down among those most likely to vote.

He is girding for what most close observers expect to be a grueling and highly negative race in which he and O'Malley will exchange heated salvos about their records as managers. Ehrlich will have unprecedented financial resources to bring his message to the people - he is expected to raise and spend as much as $20 million for the race - and he is known as a tough and spirited campaigner.

The governor didn't use O'Malley's name in his brief announcement speech, but he attacked the mayor, calling him a whiner and promising a sustained attack on the failures of Baltimore City schools.

"We're going to compete hard. We're going to engage. We're going to debate. We're going to engage the monopoly again, and this time we're going to bring the monopoly down," he said, referring to the state's Democratic establishment.

"But there's one thing we're not going to do. We're not going to whine, because that reminds me of ... ," he said, grinning at the crowd as his voice trailed off. "Never mind. Whining is not leadership. ... We do not whine. We don't whine, and we don't follow. We lead."

The governor listed a few of his accomplishments of his first term, including his efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, paid for by a monthly fee on sewage bills and septic tanks, commonly known as the "Flush Tax."

He said he inherited a $4 billion deficit and turned it into a $2.5 billion surplus. He has previously used the figure of $2 billion in speeches, which is rounded up from fiscal projections showing $1.7 billion in surpluses. Furthermore, the same method that predicted a $4 billion deficit when Ehrlich took office indicates a $3 billion deficit for the next governor early next year.

He also said he helped improve the state's education system by pushing for charter schools and increasing funding statewide. He increased spending on schools by a record amount, as he was required to do by a law passed the year before he took office.

"We put the dollars in, and scores are up, with one exception, and we'll be talking about that a lot in the campaign, about the failed management in that case," Ehrlich said, referring to Baltimore schools.

Ehrlich said he has blocked $7.5 billion in taxes from becoming law, a line that got a louder "amen" from the crowd than the prayer that started the event. He has used the $7.5 billion figure before but has not explained how he arrived at it.

Ehrlich has presided over a time of strong economic growth in Maryland, a key accomplishment for a governor who often mentions his pro-business credentials. About 97,000 jobs have been created in the state since he was inaugurated, and tens of thousands more are expected in the next several years as part of a national realignment of military bases.

Still, a majority of voters in The Post's survey said they believe the state is on the wrong track. Although Ehrlich insists that his campaign has nothing to do with national politics, he is running at a time when the popularity of President Bush and the Republicans in control of Congress is low nationally and even worse in Maryland.

When Ehrlich decided to enter the race in 2002, just months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush had an 86 percent approval rating in Maryland. That figure has since dropped by about 50 points.

Donald P. Hutchinson, the former Democratic state senator and Baltimore County executive, said the national trends against the Republican Party could hurt Ehrlich. But he said the governor is a talented campaigner who will exploit all of O'Malley's weaknesses, making it impossible to tell how the race will turn out.

"It's a Democratic state, and you normally have to give people a reason to vote against a Democrat for a Republican to win, which he did last time" against then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Hutchinson said. "He played into that vulnerability. ... And when you're the mayor of Baltimore, you're going to have some vulnerabilities."

O'Malley and his running mate, Del. Anthony G. Brown of Prince George's County, held campaign events of their own yesterday and pledged an administration more attuned to the needs of working families.

"During the last four years, Bob Ehrlich has enjoyed being governor more than he's enjoyed the hard work of governing," Brown said at a rally across the street from the governor's mansion.

Ehrlich has had difficulty getting some of his top priorities through the General Assembly in the past four years, notably slot machine gambling. He says Democrats in the legislature have been obstructionists, but Democrats say he has failed because of an unwillingness to compromise.

"If after four years you can't point to your accomplishments, you can't blame everybody and expect the people to go along with it," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

Ehrlich said yesterday that he won't change his approach or his priorities if he is re-elected.

"We have more to do," he said. "We have more kids to educate. I'm sure we have more taxes to kill. We have more Baltimore Sun lawsuits to win. We have more people to empower, and we're going to do it again."

The Sun sued Ehrlich in an effort to overturn a ban that his administration imposed on state employees talking to two journalists for the paper. A federal appeals court in February ruled in favor of Ehrlich.

Steele, who was stuck in traffic and missed his speaking slot at the announcement rally, said Ehrlich will be re-elected for a simple reason: He's a good governor.

"He's been a governor you can believe in, a governor you can trust," Steele said. "When he steps out on that platform and looks people in the eye, there's a relationship that people can trust."

andy.green@baltsun.com

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