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Maryland becomes a magnet for GOP

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was responding to a reporter's question in Baltimore yesterday about how he might fare in a presidential contest in conservative states that are not as reliably Democratic - or "blue" - as Maryland, when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. chimed in to correct the questioner.

"Light blue," Ehrlich, a Republican, cautioned.

The message was plain: GOP leaders have their sights set on changing Maryland's political hue more permanently this fall with Ehrlich's re-election - and are looking beyond. Giuliani, appearing at an Ehrlich fundraiser, is the latest in a string of national Republican leaders with their eyes on the White House to stump for Maryland candidates.

The state - with a population of 5.6 million and 10 electoral votes - has rarely been a stamping ground for Republican presidential hopefuls. But that has changed recently. In addition to Giuliani, Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist headlined a Montgomery County fundraiser last month for Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a candidate for U.S. Senate. Arizona Sen. John McCain, who ran for president in 2000 and is considering another bid in 2008, has also appeared on Steele's behalf.

Political observers say these candidates might be planting seeds for their future campaigns, but they're more likely looking to help the party by promoting the state's highest-profile Republican candidates: Ehrlich and Steele.

Whatever their motivations, their presence is a sign of the competitiveness of the state's gubernatorial and Senate races, even in what is shaping up to be a tough year nationally for the GOP, which has been hit by a string of scandals.

"It does help the Republican ticket here especially for people like Giuliani and McCain to come because they are perceived as moderates," said Matthew Crenson, professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. "That plays into Governor Ehrlich's game plan."

As they try to raise their national visibility and boost the buzz around their potential candidacies, the Republican presidential aspirants are venturing into one of the bluest of blue states, coming into a place that - though covered by the Washington media market - seldom gets much attention, even during close national elections.

Voter registration here favors Democrats by a margin of nearly 2-to-1, and when presidential election returns pour in, Maryland is often uttered in the same breath as Massachusetts.

Historically, however, the state is less one-sided than its reputation would indicate. Maryland delivered its electoral votes to a Republican presidential nominee as recently as 1988, choosing the elder George Bush over Michael S. Dukakis. The state backed Ronald Reagan in 1984, Richard M. Nixon in 1972 and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Thomas E. Dewey defeated Harry S. Truman here in 1948.

John M. Kane, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, said he thinks Marylanders are more inclined to vote for personality over party. He attributes Ehrlich's 2002 victory over Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend - he was the first Republican elected governor in more than three decades - to that tendency.

"They'll look for leadership," Kane said. "That's what they did with Reagan. When Reagan beat [Jimmy] Carter, that wasn't an 'R versus D' issue. That was the quality of the candidates."

Jennifer Duffy, editor and political analyst for The Cook Political Report, said turning Maryland red in 2008 is a long shot. But if Republicans can win a second term for Ehrlich this fall or send Steele to the Senate, they would be laying the groundwork for future gains and helping to resuscitate a struggling national party, she said.

"Doing both would be like winning Powerball," Duffy said. "To accomplish the idea that the [national] GOP is still breathing, one of them would be fine."

Before yesterday's $4,000-a-couple fundraiser for Ehrlich at the Intercontinental Harbor Court Hotel, Giuliani said he is doing a lot of "soul searching" as he weighs a 2008 presidential bid. Ehrlich, who drew between 200 and 300 donors, said the former mayor would be "a very, very strong candidate in the state of Maryland" should he decide to run, pointing to the philosophical compatibility between Giuliani and himself.

The former New York mayor said his focus is on getting Republican candidates elected around the country - work that helps build good will should he decide to run.

"If we don't get out of 2006 in the right way, 2008 is going to be a lot harder," Giuliani told reporters.

Duffy said the campaigning that Giuliani, McCain and Frist have done here and around the country will help them in the long run. They're building networks at the highest levels of state government, she said, and one day they'll each look to cash in their chits.

"One thing George Bush proved in 1999, even, was that having the backing of governors made a big difference," she said. "Therefore, for Republicans, keeping Ehrlich in office is important, and eventually one of them will benefit from that help."

The high-profile visits also show that the national party is keenly aware of the state's top contests, said Carol Hirschburg, a Republican consultant who attended the fundraiser. Recent polling for The Washington Post shows Ehrlich trailing Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, by 11 percentage points among registered voters. Steele is in a tight race against the top two Democratic contenders, former congressman and national NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume and U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore County.

"I think it's a sign that people think we're on the move here," Hirschburg said.

A reminder of how far the GOP might still have to go in Maryland came during Giuliani's remarks at the fundraiser. He urged the governor to get a special kind of law on the books, one he jokingly said he had advocated for New York City, a Democratic stronghold.

"I think you should get your state legislature to pass that Endangered Species Law that I tried to get passed in New York City - for Republicans," Giuliani said, prompting hearty laughter.

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

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