For now, Ehrlich is busy avoiding campaign mode

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The big blue signs popping up on street corners around the state look like the ones that swept Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. into office four years ago, but they're about the only similarity between his 2002 campaign and this one.

It has been a month since Ehrlich officially filed for re-election, but he has not held a single public event in his campaign. There have been no stump speeches, no news conferences, no "101 Great Ideas for Maryland," no meet-and-greets, no door knocking, no position papers, no "Burgers with Bob," nothing.

The Ehrlich campaign has run four television advertisements, but they don't even mention that there's an election in November.

Ehrlich is standing for re-election, but he is not, by the conventional definition, campaigning for it. And he says he intends to keep it that way.

"We're not going to get into campaign mode. It's not what you do as an incumbent," Ehrlich said recently. "You're not going to see a traditional campaign. It's different from last time, a different ballgame entirely."

Ehrlich is generally considered one of the most vulnerable governors in the nation, and polls consistently show him trailing Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who is campaigning aggressively. Politicians, analysts and strategists from both parties say they think that Ehrlich will have to change tactics before long.

But, for now, they say, the governor's strategy is the right one, largely because Ehrlich has never made much distinction between being governor and campaigning for governor.

"He's been campaigning since the day he got into office," said Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat who admires Ehrlich. "When he goes to an event, there's always a little bit of a campaign in there. ... He comes in with a flourish, and he leaves with a flourish.

"If anybody thinks he isn't campaigning, take it from me," Schaefer said. "He is."

Rose Garden strategy

Ehrlich appears to be employing what in presidential politics is known as the "Rose Garden strategy" -- that is, using the powers of office to look presidential, or in this case, gubernatorial, and above the political fray.

That contrast between incumbent and challenger has played out in the past month as both Ehrlich and O'Malley have attempted to draw attention to their views on health care and education.

O'Malley has done it through a steady stream of news events, policy proposals and position papers issued by his campaign. Ehrlich has said nothing about how he would address those issues if he is re-elected. But he has attended a series of events coordinated by his government office designed to show what he has done, not what he would promise.

On a recent Monday, O'Malley traveled to Lutherville for a media-friendly kitchen table chat with several registered nurses (and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski) to roll out his plan for attracting more people to the profession and retaining them. It was one of several policy announcements he has made detailing how he would expand health coverage if he were elected.

Later that afternoon, Ehrlich, flanked by white-coated doctors in the waiting room of a Park Heights clinic, announced a program that had just gone into effect that could provide free health care for 22,000 low- and moderate-income adults.

The Primary Adult Care Program had actually been in the works since the General Assembly passed a law mandating it two years ago. And, according to Del. Peter A. Hammen, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Health and Government Operations Committee, it was the idea of his predecessor, former Del. John A. Hurson, not the Ehrlich administration.

Regardless, the message Ehrlich sought to convey was clear: Candidate O'Malley promises things, but Governor Ehrlich does them.

Education clash

The same dynamic played out last week over education.

On Tuesday, O'Malley collected the endorsement of the Maryland State Teachers Association, the largest educators union in the state, and criticized Ehrlich for seeking conflict instead of progress in the struggle to educate Maryland's children.

The next day, Ehrlich traveled again to the mayor's home turf, touring a Baltimore charter school devoted to bilingual education.

Ehrlich promised to bring charter schools to the state in his 2002 campaign, and the 2003 law establishing them is among his biggest successes.

"We talk sometimes about dollars and cents, we talk about pensions, all these other issues, but the main thing is the children," Ehrlich said to the teachers, students and administrators who crowded with him in a sweltering Spanish classroom.

"Unfortunately, the vast majority of children get left behind. We have real problems in this city," Ehrlich said in a veiled dig at his opponent's record.

Paul S. Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, College Park, said it's not surprising that Ehrlich would use the governor's office to get his points across without overtly mentioning the election. Ehrlich has always been effective at campaigning without campaigning, he said.

"Regardless of where he's been in the polls, he's a very shrewd politician," Herrnson said. "The idea of making himself a figure of state, above politics, is a good one."

But Herrnson said it won't be long until Ehrlich will have to throw himself into full-fledged campaigning. He said the change will probably occur about Labor Day, when voters traditionally start paying attention in earnest.

There are signs that Ehrlich has his mind on all-out campaigning. Last week, he initiated the discussion over scheduling debates, and he spent Thursday stumping for down-ballot candidates.

In the course of endorsing five candidates for state Senate and one for Baltimore County executive, he mentioned O'Malley by name once, and then only parenthetically. But the appearances were nonetheless more about him than the candidates he was endorsing; Ehrlich devoted most of his speeches to talking about how the candidates he backed would help him.

"We've been able to be successful down there on major policy issues despite a left-leaning [Democratic] party leadership," Ehrlich said in his endorsement of Republican Jeffrey Yablon for state Senate in Baltimore County's 11th District. "Can you imagine what we could do with five new state senators?"

Carol L. Hirschburg, a Republican strategist from Owings Mills with close ties to the governor, said that in 2002 Ehrlich had to work to make voters see him as gubernatorial, but this time he doesn't. Even so, she said, this phase of the campaign won't last.

"I would find it hard to believe that the governor is not going to be on the campaign trail in the fall," she said. "He likes it, and he's so good at it."

andy.green@baltsun.com

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