When Di Lothrop told Republican friends that Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. would be the keynote speaker for their club in Nashua, N.H., this fall, she says, the reaction was nearly universal: "Who's that?"
But after the former Maryland governor and congressman spoke to the Nashua Republican City Committee for 45 minutes, Lothrop says, the same friends were asking for his contact information. Soon, he had bookings all over New Hampshire — an early state in the 2016 presidential primaries.
And now Ehrlich, who has returned to the Granite State twice since that September appearance and is planning another trip there soon, says he's thinking about running for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
"I enjoy this," he said Tuesday. "I've got to tell you, New Hampshire reminds me so much of the 2nd Congressional District. I'm very comfortable there. It reminds me of Pasadena, Bel Air, Dundalk. It's been, for me, very easy."
That makes Ehrlich the third person with Maryland ties to express interest in a White House bid. Gov. Martin O'Malley, the Democrat who defeated Ehrlich in the 2006 and 2010 gubernatorial elections, has also been traveling to primary states and is raising money for a potential campaign; he says he will probably make a decision early next year.
Dr. Ben Carson, a former pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins who has developed a following with his books on America and appearances in conservative media, finished second behind 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney in a recent poll of Republican likely caucus voters in Iowa. The longtime Maryland resident now lives in Florida.
Ehrlich said the reception in Nashua, where he was promoting a book of his own, is what started him thinking about a turn on the national stage.
"What's driving this is the reaction I'm getting from audiences," he said. In addition to a fourth New Hampshire trip, he's planning a visit to the battleground state of Florida, with a possible side foray to South Carolina, site of another early primary in 2016.
He hasn't set up a fundraising apparatus but is thinking about a next move: "There's been some discussion in the last week or so with some people who count."
Lothrop said Ehrlich left the Republicans in Nashua charmed. He was scheduled to speak for only 20 or 25 minutes, but the crowd asked so many questions he stayed nearly twice as long.
"We found him to be very personable, very approachable, and a dynamic speaker," she said. She says attendees were taken by his criticism of the Affordable Care Act, his support for the Constitution, and his admonition to establishment Republicans not to dismiss the power of tea party conservatives.
"He didn't bite his tongue," she said. "He just tells it like it is. And, boy, that's what we just loved about him."
As a one-term governor who has been out of office for nearly eight years, Ehrlich faces long odds.
Other Republicans considering a run in 2016 include New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, and, reportedly, Romney. All are better known nationally than Ehrlich.
Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College, said it would be difficult for the former governor to distinguish himself among the field.
"When you look at Ehrlich's time in office, there's no reason you would say it wasn't a successful term, but you can't point to an Ehrlich legacy," he said. "He didn't have a lasting impact on the state's budget or fiscal health.
"It's hard for me to see. What's his pitch?"
But Ryan Call, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, said Ehrlich's executive experience would be a major selling point, even if he lacks the name recognition of the others.
"He has the kind of experience that I think could inspire confidence," Call said. "It is going to be a crowded field. I think his credentials of serving as a governor in a blue-to-purple state are good credentials to start the conversation with."
Call said voters want a candidate who has a demonstrated an ability and willingness to work with the other party to advance legislative ideas.
"We're picking the next leader of the free world," Call said. "You need to have someone with a record of public service that people can kick the tires on, and have confidence in how they'll govern and how they'll lead."
Since leaving office in January 2007, the 57-year-old Ehrlich has worked with two law firms, hosted a radio show with his wife, Kendel, and written two books.
He is now senior counsel in the government advocacy and public policy practice group at King & Spalding, and writes a Sunday column for The Baltimore Sun — a platform he has used in recent months to criticize President Barack Obama, the Affordable Care Act and Hillary Clinton, the presumed front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
Ehrlich says his thinking on a potential presidential bid has grown out of the response to his appearances to talk about his second book, "America: Hope for Change," published last year.
"People are responding to blunt," Ehrlich said. "I think they're responding to some strong opinions. They are not into traditional politics right now. The middle class is nervous. I talk a fair amount about issues that are sort of off the beaten path. I'm just blunt. I'm very off script."
And that off-script, straight-talking approach is one of the features Lothrop said the New Hampshire Republicans liked immediately about Ehrlich.
Matt Moore, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, said conservatives there would be eager to hear Ehrlich make his case.
"We would welcome him to the debate," Moore said. "We've got a wide-open field, and it hasn't been decided. People want to hear ideas, a vision for the country."
Some Republicans believe the long and bruising 2012 primary campaign — in which Perry, businessman Herman Cain, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich all took turns as front-runner — damaged Romney for the general election campaign against Obama. The party has compressed the primary calendar for 2016, and is planning fewer debates.
A spokesman for the Republican National Committee said it was too early to say who might emerge from the current field to represent the GOP in November 2016. But spokesman Michael Short said the eventual nominee should be in a strong position.
"Republicans have a very deep bench of talented, accomplished individuals who can offer a strong alternative to the failed Obama-Clinton agenda that has left the middle class worse off and Washington in more control of their lives," Short said.
As for Ehrlich, he's planning stops in Rhode Island and New York in the coming weeks.
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