In April, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s message to fellow Republicans in Howard County, delivered by his wife, Kendel, was a plea for guidance and support as he pondered another run for the Maryland state house.
"This is all about you," Kendel Ehrlich told a packed Lincoln Day party dinner six months ago. "You need to tell Bob Ehrlich what you want him to do." Now those Republicans in this key political barometer county are cajoling, chanting, almost demanding that Ehrlich run for governor again against Democrat Martin O'Malley, but he is still not willing to commit, or even set a deadline.
"There are major obstacles," Ehrlich said after an enthusiastic GOP rally at an Ellicott City Veterans of Foreign Wars hall Tuesday night. "If I conclude I can win, I'll run. There's no time frame [for a decision]. There are a lot of people I have to talk to," he said, and he won't be pushed. "I've got a hard head," he said.
The event was a combined Republican effort that drew 200 people to a "Common Sense Town Rally" Colonial-themed event replete with costumes to emphasize the conservative message of "taking back" the county, state and nation. Party leaders dressed as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere and Abigail Adams, among others.
Republican elected officials chanted "Run Ehrlich Run," and during a question-and-answer period after his speech, Kathleen Newberry, 50, of Ellicott City implored Ehrlich to run.
"I'm dying to work for somebody we can believe in," she said. "These people need somebody ..." she continued, as State Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, Del. Warren E. Miller and County Councilman Greg Fox all began the "Run Ehrlich Run" chant, which quickly spread.
Before Ehrlich's arrival from an appearance in Baltimore City, a costumed Karen Winterling, president of the co-sponsoring Howard County Republican Women's Club, warmed up the crowd.
"Many of our rights are now being challenged by an administration unchecked," she said. "Our Constitution is in jeopardy. If you own a gun, go to church and oppose federal taxes, the Department of Homeland Security considers you the enemy.
"Please get involved. This is the most radical transformation our country has ever been challenged with," Winterling said.
Ehrlich was greeted by a fully costumed Paul Revere and by a standing ovation after Revere, otherwise known as Chick Chickanis, said "we enthusiastically hope he will again seek elected office."
Ehrlich later reminded the crowd that Howard County has become a bellwether subdivision in Maryland - a swing county that mirrors statewide results, which makes Howard an important political battleground.
He also described recent history as a progression of events that initially hurt Republicans, like the "prosecution of the Iraq war," the credit freeze, the "stimulus bill not meant to stimulate anything," growing federal spending, and the 2008 national election.
"This was the downward spiral," he said, when voters became angry at Republican administration spending and GOP congressional scandals and decided "we're going to take the keys to their [GOP] car."
But now there are strong signs of new life, Ehrlich said, noting united Republican votes against more stimulus spending, protest "tea" parties, and the "summer of discontent" over health care, with likely off-year Republican victories expected in elections next for governorships in Virginia and New Jersey.
Now, with Maryland's 2010 election just one year off, the future beckons, he said, with Republicans aiming to elect conservative State Sen. Andy Harris to Congress in place of Democrat Frank Kratovil, and nationally to defeat prominent Democratic senators in Nevada, Connecticut and California.
"There's revulsion of the quadrupled federal debt," he said, mentioning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate leader Harry Reid, to a round of hisses and boos.
In Maryland, heavy daily commuter traffic on Interstate 83 funneling workers from southern Pennsylvania to jobs in the Free State is "a living, tangible indictment of Maryland [tax] policy," and there's a "visceral feeling that our culture and values are under attack," Ehrlich said.
But the only way a Republican can win in Maryland is with support from crossover Democrats that will bring victory in places like Howard County, while narrowing the margin of loss in heavily Democratic Baltimore City. There, Ehrlich said, "I've got two strikes against me" when he merely walks into an African-American church.
But Roderick Young, 32, of Columbia, the only African-American in the crowd, later rose and told Ehrlich that the Republican message closely resembles the conservative values held by many black churchgoers, but the party's "packaging" is in doubt.
"The Revolutionary theme is great if you love history," Young said, looking around at the people dressed in tri-cornered hats and wearing swords, "but the 1700s weren't too good for us. I love the substance, but who's helping you with your packaging?" he said. "The party of Lincoln was very good for us," for example in contrast, he pointed out to laughter and nodding heads.
Ehrlich agreed that Young, who said he moved to Howard a year ago, had a point.
That's when Newberry stepped up to the microphone and asked Ehrlich if he'd agree to run for governor if Young agreed to be his lieutenant governor.
Still Ehrlich made no promises, and later said he's still wary, because he lost to O'Malley in 2006 even with what he said was a "60 percent approval rating" among voters.
But although Howard Republicans mention former Ehrlich appointments secretary Larry Hogan as an acceptable gubernatorial candidate if Ehrlich doesn't run, they "are optimistic that he'll run," said Howard County GOP Chairwoman Joan Becker. "That's a personal decision he has to make," she said, but if he decides to sit the race out, it will have an effect.
"People would be disappointed," she said. Trent Kittleman, Ehrlich's former Transportation Authority CEO and president, who is considering a run for Howard County executive, put it more succinctly.
"He better not," she said.