WASHINGTON – Days before he was scheduled to make his candidacy official, Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Timonium, was already being declared the Republican nominee for governor by top GOP officials in the state.
Ehrlich is slated to end months of speculation by announcing his bid at his boyhood home in Arbutus Monday morning, followed by a campaign swing through vote-rich Montgomery County and a big-bucks fund raiser in Baltimore.
Party officials, who see Ehrlich as their best shot in more than 30 years at winning back the governor’s mansion, have anointed him the favorite.
“As far as I’m concerned, (he’s) the nominee of the party,” GOP chairman Michael Steele said Friday.
While perennial Republican candidate Ross Pierpont has filed for governor, no other candidate has been seriously considered inside the Republican party for at least six months, Steele said.
“We will not have a primary — I’ll make sure of that,” he said.
Pierpont, who has run for office 16 times, said Friday he was not fazed by the lack of party support. “They can do whatever they please,” he said.
Ehrlich’s announcement will likely put him in a tough, expensive race against Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who has not yet entered the race but is considered the obvious front-runner for the Democrats.
Sources close to Townsend said she has already raised about $6 million, a figure they expect to climb once the legislative session in Annapolis ends. Maryland law prevents state officeholders from raising funds during session.
Ehrlich has raised about $1.4 million so far and his campaign should get about $500,000 from Monday night’s $1,000-$2,000 per ticket fund raiser, a “big shot in the arm,” campaign manager Paul Schurick said. He said Ehrlich has already lined up GOP fund raiser Richard Hug as well as GOP consultant James “Chip” DiPaula, who managed the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia.
Pollsters give Ehrlich fair odds in a match with Townsend. A January survey by Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications Inc. gave the congressman 32 percent name recognition statewide. It said he trailed Townsend in an election by 15 points — 8 points closer than in a September poll by the company.
The odds were about the same for Ehrlich in a race against Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who has raised more than $2.6 million but has not yet announced his intentions. The Gonzales/Arscott poll showed O’Malley leading Ehrlich 44 to 30 percent in a match-up, with 26 percent undecided.
The only announced Democratic candidate is Ralph Jaffe of Baltimore. The deadline to file for candidacy with the State Board of Elections is July 1.
Despite the poll numbers, Montgomery County Journal columnist Blair Lee thinks Ehrlich would have a harder time against O’Malley — but could benefit if the mayor gets in to the race and mounts an unsuccessful Democratic primary bid.
“(Ehrlich) needs O’Malley to get into the Democratic race to burn up some of KKT’s money,” he said.
An aggressive candidate like O’Malley, he said, would put Townsend on the defensive and probably weaken her campaign message.
Ehrlich’s campaign message characterizes the affable, photogenic candidate as a moderate conservative, who supports business as well as conservation and tows a moderate line on many social issues.
Recently however, Townsend campaigners have tried to chip away at that image, describing Ehrlich instead as a hard-line “devotee” of conservative former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
“By all definitions, he’s no moderate. He’s very conservative,” said Alan Fleischmann, Townsend’s chief of staff. “He’s considered a devotee and supporter of Gingrich’s very controversial Contract with America.”
Schurick declined to comment on the characterization, saying, “Our intention is for this to be a campaign about the issues. I hope to avoid a campaign about personalities.”
Fleischmann said he welcomes an issues-driven race, and looks forward to the expected face-off between Townsend and Ehrlich.
“Bring it on, baby — bring it on!” Steele said. “We’re not running away from this.”
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