Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is poised to announce Monday that he is running for governor, scheduling a morning speech from his boyhood home in Arbutus and afternoon stops in voter-rich Montgomery County, where statewide candidates must perform well to succeed.
Ehrlich, a Baltimore County Republican, has privately told state and national GOP leaders he will mount a gubernatorial bid rather than seek re-election to a congressional seat sharply altered by redistricting.
In an interview yesterday, he stopped short of confirming his intentions but outlined themes of a campaign, which he said would include a discussion of how Maryland's budget problems hurt the working poor and the need for slot-machine gambling to improve public education.
He said he was steeled for charges from Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democrat who leads in early polls, that he is too conservative for Maryland's tastes.
"We've seen what the dominant party has done in this state in the past with the attack ads. That's fine," Ehrlich said. "But somehow, real debate has to break out."
Ehrlich, 44, has long been considered the state Republican Party's best hope to elect a governor for the first time since 1966. He has delayed a decision for months, angering some party regulars who hoped a campaign would be under way already.
But as he waited, his prospects improved slightly: The state's budget mess is providing debate fodder, and Townsend's negative ratings have been on the rise.
"I hope he runs. This party is going to be in big trouble if he's there to announce his re-election to Congress," said Del. Donald E. Murphy, a Catonsville Republican.
"This is a kid from Arbutus who got elected to the House of Delegates and got elected to Congress when no Republican from the area ever could. Maybe him becoming governor is not too far-fetched."
Ehrlich would join perennial candidate Ross Z. Pierpont, 84, who is also vying for the GOP nomination. Townsend has not formally announced her candidacy, and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, is also pondering a bid.
A poll conducted for The Sun in January showed Townsend leading Ehrlich, 51 percent to 36 percent, in a hypothetical match.
Ehrlich's apparent decision to launch a campaign from the southwestern Baltimore County community where his parents still live will highlight a working-class upbringing and self-made stature that he hopes will appeal to voters.
The son of a car salesman and a secretary, Ehrlich received a scholarship to the prestigious Gilman School, where he played football and lacrosse. He was captain of the Princeton University football team, graduated from law school at Wake Forest and was a lawyer with Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver in Baltimore. He served eight years in the Maryland General Assembly before his first election to Congress in 1994.
"The word is out, no doubt about it," said Clemis Kaikis, owner of Paul's Restaurant in Arbutus, who has been enlisted to serve coffee and doughnuts for a crowd of 200 Monday. "Of course his parents are excited. Here's their son, who started at the bottom, running for the highest office in the state."
Arbutus, Ehrlich said, "is not only where I was born, but where I am from."
"This is going to be a race of contrasts," he said. "I'm not talking about class, I'm talking about what you've done, how many elections have you won."
Ehrlich's move would create a vacancy in the 2nd Congressional District, a seat reshaped by Gov. Parris N. Glendening through the once-a-decade redistricting process to favor a Democrat. Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger is considering running, and the district is expected to be one of the 40 or so most competitive House races nationwide in this fall's election.
Ehrlich has said he has been under pressure from national Republicans to either seek re-election or make sure the GOP keeps the seat. Both former gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey and former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley might seek the Republican nomination, but Ehrlich said he hopes there will be just one candidate.
"I don't want a primary," he said yesterday. "That's my strong desire, and the desire of national Republicans. That's an obligation I've taken very seriously."
An engaging campaigner who is an ally of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Ehrlich has said his congressional career would be stymied by his views on some social issues, such as his support for abortion rights in some cases, family planning and stem cell research.
"It's going to be tough for me to rise in leadership," he said in an interview last month.
Still, on other issues, Ehrlich has compiled a conservative record that is certain to be debated in the months ahead. Environmental groups give him low marks, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce awards him a high rating.
"His rhetoric does not match his record," said Alan Fleischmann, Townsend's chief of staff.
Highway, slot machines
Monday's swing through Montgomery County will highlight one of the clearer differences between Townsend and Ehrlich. The congressman is a strong supporter of the Intercounty Connector, a contentious road project that supporters believe will help relieve crisis-level traffic congestion in the Washington suburbs.
Townsend says she wants to study the road, along with other options for relieving traffic.
A further difference is slots. Ehrlich said money from slot-machine gambling is the only way to provide the $1.1 billion yearly in additional public education funding recommended by a blue-ribbon panel on state schools. Townsend supports the panel's recommendations, but believes slots are addictive and crime-inducing.
Ehrlich said that "fiscal mismanagement" by the Glendening-Townsend administration has led to dire problems in the state's mental health system, housing programs, criminal justice system and transportation.
"How ironic that in a supposedly progressive administration, when they get in trouble, they cut every program for the working poor," he said.
Fleischmann countered that Ehrlich's votes for unbalanced federal budgets are more fiscally irresponsible. Maryland, by law, must have a balanced budget.
"This administration has made education and health care the No. 1 and No. 2 priorities," Fleischmann said. "He voted to eliminate the Department of Education and slash funding for Medicaid, Medicare and prescription drugs. There is a real difference in both the record and priorities of Mr. Ehrlich and the lieutenant governor."
Monday's campaign launch will end with a major fund-raiser at the Hyatt hotel in downtown Baltimore. Ehrlich said he will need $8 million to overcome the lieutenant governor's name recognition, incumbency and hefty campaign war chest. Much of the money would be spent on television in the Washington area, where Ehrlich is not well known.
"We will raise enough money to run a very cost-effective campaign," said Richard E. Hug, Ehrlich's finance director, adding that the national Republican Party could provide resources if the race is competitive.
"If it's close and doable, there will be money," Hug said. "If it's not close and it's not doable, there won't be money."