Ehrlich stumps in Montgomery for votes of 'persuadable Dems'

Sun Staff

ROCKVILLE - Think India, home to one-sixth of the world's population. Or California plus New York, which together cast one-sixth of the presidential votes in 2000.

Now think Montgomery County, and you get the idea. In the fight to become Maryland's next governor, the scrapping will be toughest on Montgomery County's turf. It is the state's largest jurisdiction, and one-sixth of the people who cast ballots in the 1998 gubernatorial election live here.

And, because of their proximity to Washington and stunningly large collection of graduate degrees, county voters are often referred to as among the savviest in the nation.

"These are people who understand what motions to recommit are," said Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., referring to a legislative procedure. "They really watch C-SPAN."

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the county by almost 2-to-1. But Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey won about 40 percent of the vote in 1994 and 1998, which means the county - unlike Baltimore City and Prince George's - has no shortage of what pollsters call "persuadable Dems."

All this explains why Ehrlich and his gubernatorial campaign staff are devoting at least one-sixth of their brains to figuring out how best to operate in Montgomery.

Yesterday in Potomac and Rockville, Ehrlich took a tour of various Jewish health and social service agencies as a sort of formal introduction to the county's Jewish community.

In a cafeteria filled with senior citizens eating lunch, Ehrlich told them he had never represented their area before but promised they would soon see his face on television.

"I'm in Montgomery County a lot," he said. "Just about every day."

When he had finished his short speech, Evelyn Besansky asked the only question of the day: "What's your name?"

Ehrlich knows he has much work to do in the county, where polls show his name is significantly less recognizable than that of his Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

"I would say people don't even know who he is," said Marvin Sirkis, 68, of Gaithersburg, who was exercising in the Jewish Community Center gym as Ehrlich toured it. "If this is where the votes are, he'd better show up more."

Ehrlich is giving the county special treatment, in part because of its unique voter population. It has the biggest proportion of registered independents of any Maryland county, about 18 percent.

And burgeoning Latino and Asian communities represent voters, many of them first-timers, whose political tendencies are not fully understood by the state's best political minds.

Since January, Ehrlich has visited 58 times, his campaign says, for Metro-stop handshakes to fancy fund-raisers.

Townsend's campaign says she has been here even more often. And conventional wisdom says a majority of the county will choose her in November.

But Ehrlich doesn't necessarily need most Montgomery voters as he seeks to become Maryland's first Republican governor in more than 30 years. A significant minority could be enough - and he says he knows what he must do to get it.

He has done more face-to-face politicking in Montgomery than anywhere else, one of the strategies his staff gained from weekly meetings with county officials last spring to learn how Republicans get elected here.

Ehrlich's first television ad, a biographical spot, will air in the Washington suburbs. He has a campaign office in Bethesda and is about to open another in Rockville - making Montgomery the only county where he has two offices.

While he relies on volunteers in other parts of the state, in Montgomery he has hired a full-time grass-roots organizer. Mindful of the natives, he has stocked the Bethesda office with bumper stickers that say "Another Democrat for Ehrlich" and "Ehrlich Para Gubernador."

Montgomery is the only county where his campaign is employing a business model to analyze voter performance. Using a "Strength-Weakness Analysis Test," aides are examining every precinct in every election since 1968, tallying what the salient issues were, voters' economic status and ethnicity, and what the weather was like, said John Kane, a businessman and Ehrlich backer who briefly considered running for governor.

No matter how scientifically based his organization, longtime observers of Montgomery politics say Ehrlich's message will be paramount.

"It is possible for a Republican to do well in Montgomery County, if you put forth the kind of image that makes you come across as an independent person," said Tony Caligiuri, spokesman for Rep. Constance A. Morella, the eight-term Republican from Montgomery.

Mostly, his advisers say, Ehrlich must be extremely careful not to sound too ... Republican. He'll probably keep quiet about his vote to repeal a national ban on assault weapons, for instance, and his vote to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - positions Townsend's campaign promises to make known.

Instead, Ehrlich will talk about the county's top worries - crowded schools and horrid traffic - and suggest that voters should be wary about Townsend's ability to fix them.

His campaign will point out the hundreds of trailers serving as classrooms and will characterize her support of a controversial east-west highway dubbed the Intercounty Connector as wishy-washy.

"She says she supports it if it can be built in an environmentally sensitive way," said Kane. "Let's be clear about his: We're talking about putting asphalt down on dirt. That's her out. You can't do it in a sensitive way."

Ehrlich also will stress his position as vice chairman of the House biotech caucus and will talk often about health care. All are topics unlikely to offend anyone.

The strategy might sound obvious, but those who worked on Sauerbrey's campaign say she never mastered it. Rather, they said, she scared off Montgomery voters because of her harsh partisan tone and strict anti-abortion beliefs.

Clearly the Republican model to emulate is that of Morella, who kept Sauerbrey at arm's length in 1998. In contrast, she has campaigned several times with Ehrlich and introduced him in Chevy Chase in March when he announced his candidacy.

While these efforts are likely to help Ehrlich, most political observers say the territory largely belongs to Townsend. For eight years, she supported Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth policy, which is popular in the county. She opposes slot machines, which polls conducted for The Sun show are not favored by most voters here. And her recent support for an "environmentally sound" Intercounty Connector has boosted her popularity.

Besides all that, Townsend claims hometown girl credentials. She attended Stone Ridge, a Catholic school for girls in Bethesda, through 10th grade and is still friends with some of her schoolmates. Her candidacy is strongly backed by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (who also considered running for governor) and by all the Democrats on the County Council and in the county's General Assembly delegation.

Although Townsend campaigns in Montgomery at least twice a week - and sometimes up to four times - aides say she's not all that worried about garnering votes here. After all, even many Republicans in the county say they like her.

"She's a natural for Montgomery," said Del. Jean B. Cryor, a Republican who has counseled Ehrlich's campaign. "People genuinely have always liked her. Why wouldn't you like her?"

Nevertheless, Cryor and others say that if Ehrlich can successfully promote a moderate image, he could win a magic 45 percent of the vote - enough to help him take the election.

Under 45 percent, the experts say, and he's in trouble.

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