The fire in Bob Ehrlich's tone matched the red of his polo shirt.
His friend, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, had just finished a fierce speech dismissing Democrat Martin O'Malley as the "most anti-business governor in the country." His one-time tea party antagonist, Brian Murphy, sat by the stage offering support.
The Republican candidate for governor seemed in his element, spoiling for a fight.
"He can't market what he's done," Ehrlich shouted to hundreds of supporters against the brilliant autumn backdrop of a Montgomery County farm. "Because he's done nothing!"
Earlier this year, political analysts treated the Ehrlich-O'Malley rematch as a clash of the titans — a rare contest between the sitting governor and his predecessor with polls showing them in a dead heat. But O'Malley pressed his large financial advantage, releasing a barrage of negative advertising against Ehrlich over the summer. And a recent Sun poll showed the incumbent with a 14-point lead among likely voters.
With other surveys producing similar results, Ehrlich has spent the home stretch of his campaign as a brawling underdog, relentlessly attacking O'Malley and trying to tap into national outrage over unemployment, illegal immigration and President Barack Obama's health-care overhaul — issues that have imperiled Democrats in other states.
In nearly every stump speech, Ehrlich, 52, has accused O'Malley of insulting Maryland voters with his advertising. When the two met for a debate on WOLB radio, Ehrlich showed his fighting spirit, honed as a linebacker at Gilman and Princeton and as the first Republican elected governor in Democratic Maryland since the 1960s.
"Enough of this stuff," he told O'Malley, after the Democrat accused him of voting against minority business programs in Congress. "We're not here to look at 15-year-old votes when you don't even know what you're talking about. You don't get to reinvent facts."
And when O'Malley brought up Ehrlich's post-gubernatorial stint as a highly paid lawyer, the Republican said, "It's OK to get a job in the private sector. You're going to be looking for one in a few months."
Since that confrontation 12 days before the election, Ehrlich has grinned and shouted his way through rallies, conceding nothing to the polls. He touts a recent fundraising edge over O'Malley, and internal polls that he says show a much closer race.
During a rally at Leisure World in Silver Spring, Ehrlich told Republican Club members he was done with politics after Democrats dominated the 2008 election.
"There wasn't any reason to run if I couldn't look you in the eye and say, 'We can win,'" he said.
He credited his wife, Kendel, with keeping his mind open and said he changed it altogether because of the enthusiasm he saw at grassroots events in 2009.
"I'm very happy I made the decision," he said
Ehrlich's geographic strategy has been clear. Four years ago, he won 19 of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions but was unable to overcome crushing defeats in Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Over much of the last two weeks, he has bounced between Montgomery County, a Democratic stronghold where an improvement of a few points could mean thousands of extra votes, and his political home base of Baltimore County, where he says large turnout and a commanding margin are essential to his chances for victory.
Ehrlich said O'Malley hurt him in Montgomery County with an early barrage of television advertising, portraying the Republican as a lobbyist for the oil industry and attempting to discredit him for claiming fee increases weren't the same as tax increases. But he added that his counterattack, launched with three weeks remaining in the campaign, has begun to pay off, according to internal polls.
Speaking to early voters last weekend in Catonsville, Ehrlich called Baltimore County "the key to winning."
"This is my home so it's personal to me," he said. "It's really personal."
The Arbutus native, speaking from the bed of a pickup truck in a form-fitting Under Armour shirt, delighted in a sign that read, "Hippies for Ehrlich."
Its maker, Christine Koloski, is a former Democrat who runs an energy-healing practice and wore a wreath of flowers to the rally. She said she's worried about the direction of the state and country.
"As a middle-income couple, my husband and I are finding it more difficult to make a decent living," she said. "We're making more money, but we seem to have less and less in our pockets."
Aides say Baltimore County offers "the highest ceiling" for Ehrlich. He hopes to build a decisive margin there in part on the votes of registered Democrats who supported Joe Bartenfelder in the primary race for county executive. It was common during the primary season to see Ehrlich and Bartenfelder signs paired on the same lawns. And Ehrlich has spent significant time wooing blue-collar Democrats who are concerned about unemployment and the impacts of illegal immigration.
At a Monday rally in the back courtyard of the Portside Pub in Essex, supporter Don Crockett tore up a copy of The Sun featuring the unfavorable poll result on the front page. Ehrlich grinned.
"To those of you unaccustomed to Essex, subtlety is not a strength down here," he said. "Just like Arbutus."
Ehrlich went on to say that people are hurting more than in any election cycle he can remember. He promised to ease the pain by lowering the sales tax, easing business regulations and setting tougher policies against illegal immigration.
Crockett said he supported O'Malley before siding with Ehrlich.
"Bob is a human being first and a politician second," he said. "I believed in O'Malley as a person, and I still don't dislike him. But things are never going to change this way. We need to shake the bush."
Asked about his affinity for voters in places like Essex, Ehrlich said, "I think it's more my background than my philosophy. It's home. We share the same working-class roots."
To hammer home the point, he has brought his parents, a retired used-car salesman and legal secretary, to Baltimore County appearances.
If voters there feel like old friends, Ehrlich has had to work harder to generate excitement among tea party conservatives. That movement's biggest star, Sarah Palin, endorsed Ehrlich's primary opponent, Brian Murphy. And some tea partiers groused about Ehrlich's refusal to debate Murphy during the primaries.
But the two behaved like old pals at Ehrlich's rally with Giuliani last weekend. Murphy said he'd do anything Ehrlich asked to help get him back in the State House. Ehrlich called Murphy the "future of our state."
"His worldview is very similar to mine," Murphy said. "We're all running because everything is broken. O'Malley needs to be fired for incompetence."
For most of his campaign, Ehrlich focused most consistently on tax cuts and job creation. But near the finish, he has steered his message more to issues that fan conservative passions.
He spent two consecutive days this month talking about health care, the issue that rallied tea party voters like no other. He derided Obama's legislation as a step toward European- or Canadian-style rationing. A 50-year-old woman would receive treatment for breast cancer under the system, he said, but a 75-year-old woman might not.
"There's no need to get emotional," he told a roomful of doctors and nurses at a Rockville restaurant. "But I don't want a bureaucrat telling me my mother can't get the treatment she deserves."
Janet Pogar, a nurse practitioner who works with geriatric patients in Montgomery County, stood after his remarks.
"I want you to help us always say yes," she said.
Ehrlich has since made the appeal about patients his mother's age a regular part of his stump speech. He has often followed by saying that O'Malley is "the only governor in the country running towards this bill."
When pressed, Ehrlich acknowledged that it's unclear how he might be able to combat the health care bill as governor. He said he would have a conversation with Democratic Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler about joining other states in a legal challenge, but said such a move would be "largely symbolic" because the Supreme Court is likely to consider the issue anyway.
Ehrlich has acknowledged an element of improvisation to his campaign. For example, he did not treat immigration as a leading issue for most of the race. But after O'Malley used the phrase "new Americans" to describe immigrants during their second debate, Ehrlich began peppering his stump speeches with mocking references to the term.
At the Essex rally on Monday, he grinned and shook his head when one supporter whipped out a sign that read, "New Americans for O'Malley." He later quipped that recent polls showing O'Malley with a big lead must have featured numerous responses from "those new Americans."
The next day in Owings Mills, Ehrlich joined a group of immigrants who had become U.S. citizens to explain his differences with O'Malley on the issue. He said he would work to change a 2009 law that will allow Maryland drivers to keep their licenses without proof of citizenship until 2015. He said he would not grant illegal immigrants in-state tuition at the state's public colleges and universities. And he promised to cut state funding for organizations that support illegal immigrants.
Ehrlich said O'Malley prompted his new focus on immigration: "He made it more emotional" with the "new American" remark, he said.
"It's insulting to the people in this room," Ehrlich said, nodding to the immigrants who had obtained citizenship legally. "The reason this has gone national is that people are upset about it."
Such remarks fire up the conservatives who show up to Ehrlich's rallies. Elsewhere, he has run headlong into reminders that, as a Republican in Maryland, he'll always be running uphill.
At the WOLB debate, hosted by former state Sen. Larry Young, Ehrlich told an audience filled with African-American leaders that he had worked hard to forge bonds with black communities.
"I've been on this show many times," Ehrlich said in his opening remarks. "I've engaged this audience. This is not a new or unique place for me."
He went on to hammer O'Malley for his emphasis on increasing arrests as mayor of Baltimore and to tout his own robust record of offering clemency, appointing black judges and investing in minority businesses as governor.
After the debate, Ehrlich chatted with Young and took a congratulatory call from former state Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV. He said it was important to note how often he has appeared on Young's show, targeted to an African-American audience.
"He's a Democrat, and he hasn't," Ehrlich said, referring to O'Malley. "I'm a Republican, and I have."
Yet, when he walked to the parking lot, Ehrlich saw nary a supporter among a sea of people waving O'Malley signs. The Sun poll found that he trailed O'Malley 88 percent to 4 percent among black likely voters.
The day after the debate, both candidates attended a five-hour funeral service for Apostle Betty Peebles, who built the 19,000-member Jericho City of Praise megachurch in Landover.
Before Ehrlich took the stage to speak about Peebles, assistant minister Bobby Henry told the congregation how the Republican governor had worked closely with her and come to pray by her side after her son died.
Ehrlich hugged family members and paced the stage comfortably as he eulogized Peebles.
"Look at this picture," he said, gesturing to a video screen depicting Pebbles' face. "You know what never changed? The eyes. These are the eyes I was fearful of. Can I get an amen on that one?"
He described Peebles as an unpaid adviser and confidante on everything from family to finance.
"Pastor was a conditionless friend," Ehrlich concluded. "I hope all of you in life are lucky enough to collect conditionless friends. We celebrate her elevation to a new, beautiful life, but I've got to tell you: I'm going to miss her."
The applause he received was warm, but hardly raucous.
O'Malley followed, describing Peebles as a "remarkable woman" and blessing her family and legacy. Though kind, his remarks were less personal than Ehrlich's.
Even so, the heavily African-American crowd in heavily Democratic Prince George's County gave the governor a standing ovation.
After a career in what he calls "the bluest state in the country," Ehrlich is used to such moments. He was asked if every campaign feels like an away game.
"Of course, it's Maryland," he said. "I've been seeing that since my delegate days. It's not daunting."
Ehrlich election timeline
1986 - Won one of three House of Delegates seats in District 10 with third-most votes
1990 – Won one of three House of Delegates seats in District 10 with second-most votes
1994 – Defeated Gerry Brewster in 2nd Congressional District with 62.7 percent of vote
1996 – Defeated Connie DeJuliis in 2nd Congressional District with 61.8 percent of vote
1998 – Defeated Kenneth Bosley in 2nd Congressional District with 69.3 percent of vote
2000 – Defeated Kenneth Bosley in 2nd Congressional District with 68.6 percent of vote
2002 – Defeated Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in gubernatorial race with 51.6 percent of vote
2006 – Lost to Martin O'Malley in gubernatorial race with 46.2 percent of vote