Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. won the governorship of Maryland yesterday, prying open the iron grip Democrats have held on the post since Spiro T. Agnew left office and reversing a 36-year losing streak for Republican gubernatorial candidates.

Ehrlich, who ran a campaign fueled by a gregarious personality and a theme of change, beat Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend by a decisive margin, garnering most of his votes from suburban counties where Republicans have done well in the past.

By toppling a Kennedy in a state dominated by Democratic voters, Ehrlich's victory made good on the symbolism of his campaign: that a working-class kid could, against all odds, beat a privileged member of America's most storied political family.

"We meant what we said during the campaign -- that 'time for a change' meant something," Ehrlich said today in announcing that Lieutenant Governor-elect Michael Steele would head his transition team at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Baltimore. "In this case, change means ideas. We believe we have the ideas to take this state in a new direction."

Despite running an aggressive campaign that relentlessly tried to map the philosophical chasm separating her from Ehrlich, Townsend suffered the fate of every Maryland lieutenant governor who has tried for the top job. She was unable to shake the tarnished legacy of her boss of eight years, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who is leaving office with dismal popularity ratings.

Townsend called Ehrlich shortly after 11 p.m. to concede defeat, he said today. "She was very gracious and very nice," Ehrlich said. "We've never had a bad word between us -- personally.

"Unfortunately, this campaign got very ugly, and campaigns happen like that," he added. "But now, we're looking forward, not behind."

Ehrlich also said he has grown offended by questions from people about his victory being a surprise.

"I would hope that the analysts will give us a little credit," he said, noting this his campaign was up against Townsend's $9 million war chest, Kennedy family ties and backing by the state's Democratic establishment. "Nobody forced me out of Congress. It was a tough decision.

"But we knew that if we could become competitive, a lot of the moderates and others would come forth to support our ticket."

In naming Steele as his transition team chair, Ehrlich said: "Michael Steele is my partner. It was not a campaign slogan." He also named longtime staffer and former Maryland economic development chief James Brady to supervise the team's daily operations.

Ehrlich also said Glendening called him today to congratulate him on his victory and offer his help in the transition.

While no promises were made, Ehrlich said the governor wants to talk about steps that can be taken to reduce spending in the eight months remaining in fiscal 2002.

"He was optimistic that we could make real progress with regard to the $418 million we are short this year," Ehrlich said.

In his victory speech about midnight, a beaming Ehrlich greeted supporters with "welcome to history," while holding his 3-year-old son, Drew, who was hamming it up for the audience.

The governor-elect said he had received a congratulatory call from an excited President Bush.

He then struck a serious note during his speech, describing the responsibilities he soon will undertake. "But as we know, power must be held responsibly and successfully or it will be a temporary stay, because that's the nature of democracy in a free society."

Delivering her concession speech just before 11:30 p.m., Townsend thanked her supporters and urged them to join with Ehrlich "in doing what is right for Maryland."

"I hope that with the campaign over, with the charges and countercharges fading away, we will realize that the things that unite us are far more powerful than the things that divide us," she said.