After last year's loss, ex-governor keeps fans' comeback hopes alive

The Baltimore Sun

When Jon and Rosemarie Butts tried to figure out when to take their 13-month-old son, Ryan, to the Maryland State Fair in Timonium, the answer was obvious: Bob Ehrlich night. They liked him as governor, wish he was still, and will vote for him again in a heartbeat - no matter what he runs for.

At the moment, that's nothing, but if any of the people who wandered by the Maryland Republican Party's booth last night thought the ex-governor's appearance was a campaign stop, the confusion would be understandable.

"Whoa, this guy's a little linebacker," Ehrlich said, hoisting Ryan in the air while their camera clicked. An aide handed Jon a "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Ehrlich" bumper sticker, and the former governor was on to the next person in line.

Ehrlich lost last year to a guy with a rock band, but last night at the state fair, he was the one signing autographs.

"A lot of people believe in me," Ehrlich, who turns 50 in November, said with a pen poised over a booklet recounting his years as governor. "Where that goes in the future, no one knows now."

Nine months after Democrat Martin O'Malley easily defeated Ehrlich, sending the Republican packing after one term, Ehrlich is still drawing crowds of supporters. As O'Malley grapples with a $1.5 billion budget gap - one Ehrlich's administration predicted but did not solve - the Republican is tending to his base of supporters and keeping their hopes alive for a restoration.

"If he ran again, he'd make it," said Marlene Strobel of Perry Hall, who first voted for Ehrlich after seeing his father standing by the side of the road in a Santa Claus suit in a 1994 campaign stunt.

Although Ehrlich lost by 7 percentage points in a state long dominated by Democrats, his job approval ratings never dipped below 50 percent. And while he might not have found much common ground with the Democratic-controlled legislature, polls found that Ehrlich's personal favorability ratings were even higher. Even out of office, a core of supporters still want to see him back in the governor's mansion, an idea he doesn't discourage.

"He's still very popular, especially among Republicans, and I know everywhere he goes, he gets a good response," said Del. William J. Frank, a Baltimore County Republican.

If Ehrlich decides to run again, he would be the consensus choice of the Republican Party, Frank said.

"No question about it," Frank said. "He would unite all parts of the party, all factions, and they would rally behind him without any hesitation."

Maryland Democratic Party spokesman David Paulson said that Ehrlich wouldn't fare any better if he ran again.

"The voters said you didn't do a good job, and they saw a better leader," Paulson said. "Doing talk radio and signing autographs do not improve your leadership skills."

Political comebacks for defeated governors aren't unheard of, and in at least two cases, the losses proved to be hiccups in the road to national prominence. Democrat Bill Clinton lost his re-election bid as Arkansas governor in 1980, came back in 1982, won several more terms and took the presidency in 1992. Michael Dukakis did the same thing in Massachusetts before securing the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988.

"First, it takes a lot of mea culpas," Dukakis said yesterday. "I mean it. Learning from that experience, and I think both the former governor of Arkansas and I will tell you, we learned from defeat, painful though it was. ... You learn, you tell people you've learned and are serious about it, and you go out and organize the hell out of the state."

Ehrlich said he doesn't draw any lessons from his defeat last year.

"As far as execution, as far as running on our record, as far as what we had to sell and how we went about our business, I feel pretty good about it," said Ehrlich, an Arbutus native and former congressman.

He said it's way too early to decide whether he'll run again, but he appears to be doing what he can to keep his options open by avoiding the usual playbook for Maryland's ex-governors: Take an office in a blue-chip law firm, see a few clients and, unless you're William Donald Schaefer, keep quiet.

Ehrlich's got the law firm - a new branch of the North Carolina institution, Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice - and he says he's ahead of schedule in terms of drawing clients and earning money, largely through clients from the biotech industry.

But the law firm is hardly Ehrlich's only gig. He's writing a book about the future of the national Republican Party. He's chairing former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's presidential campaign in the Mid-Atlantic, a job that allows him to travel around the country giving speeches. And he and his wife, Kendel, host an hourlong talk show on WBAL-AM radio on Saturdays, where they give a platform to Marylanders who are angry about the possibility of tax increases, among other things.

"There's no doubt the show is, at least in part, catharsis," Ehrlich said.

If Ehrlich's post-gubernatorial career is unusual, it's at least in part because Maryland political history doesn't offer much in the way of analogies to his situation.

He is the first governor since William Preston Lane to lose a re-election bid, and that was in 1950. "There was no model to run, no model to govern, and there's no model to look toward as far as post-career options go," Ehrlich said.

Recent governors have generally faded from public view. Marvin Mandel ended his term in office by going to prison, though his fraud and racketeering conviction was later overturned. He went on to practice law in Annapolis and do some lobbying, eventually serving as a largely behind-the-scenes adviser to the Ehrlich administration.

Harry Hughes left office in 1986 and took up with a Baltimore law firm. He retired to Caroline County, popping briefly back into the public spotlight two years ago as a champion of state-funded stem cell research. He now occasionally advises the O'Malley administration on environmental matters.

Parris N. Glendening set up a Smart Growth consulting firm when he left office in 2002. He travels the country giving speeches, but he rarely spoke out about politics during Ehrlich's term. He enjoyed a brief renaissance after O'Malley was elected and rehired several members of Glendening's Cabinet.

The governor Ehrlich was closest to might provide the nearest analogue to his situation. Schaefer, prevented by term limits from running again, tried the law firm route after he left office in 1994, but his political retirement didn't take. He maintained a loyal following and was elected state comptroller in 1998, serving two terms.

As to whether he might try a similar comeback, Ehrlich said it all depends on how state voters react to the Democratic administration.

Said Ehrlich: "It's unknown and unknowable at present."

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