It seems to be a tradition in Maryland for Republicans to say they are planning to run for governor - but would happily bow out if Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. gets in the race.

Audrey E. Scott, now the state Republican chairwoman, and businessman John M. Kane stepped forward nearly a decade ago as admitted backup candidates before Ehrlich, then in Congress, announced his candidacy for governor and eventually won. This year, Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, says he's thinking of running but is willing to step aside if Ehrlich jumps in this winter.

And then there's Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., who is viewed by many GOP leaders as Ehrlich's chief man-in-waiting.

The quasi-candidacy of Hogan, a 53-year-old real estate brokerage executive who served in Ehrlich's Cabinet, has taken shape in recent weeks even as he insists he's still exploring the idea. He gave his first stump speech this month to a Republican club in Howard County, which he called a swing county. He has recruited two staffers, printed stacks of campaign literature and done some fundraising.

After months of waiting for Ehrlich to announce whether he'll challenge Gov. Martin O'Malley to a rematch in 2010, Republicans are stressing the need for a credible alternative. With less than a year before Election Day, they say backup candidates need to start building name recognition and campaign coffers.

But Hogan cannot escape the fact that he's not Ehrlich. Even among a receptive crowd of about 50 people at the Ellicott City Veterans of Foreign Wars hall, decked out with Hogan's Kelly green campaign signs, attendees made it clear that Ehrlich is their No. 1 guy. In fact, Ehrlich appeared at the same hall weeks earlier and drew a raucous crowd of more than 200.

"A lot of people have warm feelings in their heart for Ehrlich, and they want him back," said the club president, Karen Winterling. "But if he doesn't run, Hogan's going to step up, and I respect him for that."

Some observers contend that no Republican but Ehrlich could win the governor's mansion next year. Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric at Towson University who regularly has Ehrlich as a guest speaker in his class, says that the former governor is the only Republican who is "sufficiently high-profile" to win in Maryland, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin.

"Whereas you can always find another Republican to run, I don't think there is a viable alternative," Vatz said.

At least one poll has Ehrlich losing to O'Malley by about the same margin as in 2006. The silver lining for the GOP: That same survey by Clarus Research Group, an independent organization, found that voters preferred "somebody new" to O'Malley by nearly a 10-point margin. That has prompted Hogan to deadpan that he plans to change his name to "somebody new."

Hogan has a self-deprecating style. He tempered expectations at the Howard Republican club, saying he hadn't worked out kinks in his speech, and prompted the audience to laugh or applaud when lines fell flat. His invective against O'Malley, however, did elicit a response as he decried an "arrogant monopoly" of Democrats in Annapolis and blamed the governor for lost jobs and higher taxes. He also pledged to roll back the sales tax, which was raised to 6 percent from 5 percent in early 2008.

"It is time for someone to step up to the challenge because the people of Maryland deserve a strong, clear choice for a change," Hogan said.

It's been nearly two decades since Hogan was last on the campaign trail. He ran for office against Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat, in 1992 and surprised the pundits by nearly defeating Hoyer even though he was outspent by a 6-to-1 ratio. Hogan surprised his party again by deciding not to challenge Hoyer in the next election, instead choosing to build the real estate business he founded.

Hogan emphasizes in his biography that he worked in his father's campaigns and administration. Lawrence J. Hogan Sr. was first elected to the U.S. House in 1968 and was elected Prince George's County executive in 1978. Hogan Jr. also believes he can court Asian-American voters because his wife, Yumi, is Korean.

But his ability to appeal broadly to voters has been questioned by Democrats, who regard him as a divisive figure. As appointments secretary under Ehrlich, Hogan was at the center of controversy over the Republican administration replacing state workers. Democrats accused Ehrlich of going too far, firing longtime bureaucrats to bring in low-level GOP loyalists.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who sat on a special committee that investigated Ehrlich's personnel practices, called Hogan a "lightweight" and said "he took partisan shots a fair amount of the time, and he didn't seem to do anything noteworthy or productive."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, whose district includes parts of Prince George's County, is well acquainted with the Hogan family. Miller said Hogan Jr. has "good credentials" and warned that "all incumbents should be fearful because voters are very angry about the economy." But that doesn't mean Hogan can beat O'Malley, Miller added.

Nonetheless, Hogan remains ready for a full-scale run. "Larry is doing a good job in preparing the way," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, the minority whip from Washington County. Shank said he would support Hogan if he's the nominee, but he made it clear that Hogan "would step aside if our thoroughbred decides to run."

Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.

Age:: 53

Profession:: CEO of the Hogan Companies, a real estate brokerage firm

Political experience:: Maryland secretary of appointments, 2003 to 2007; delegate to Republican Party national conventions; candidate for Congress in 1992

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