WASHINGTON – After announcing his bid for governor in his hometown of Arbutus on Monday, Republican Rep. Robert Ehrlich is scheduled to hit the campaign trail in Montgomery County — where he might just pass his likely Democratic opponent on the highway.
By the time Ehrlich appears at the Bethesda/Chevy Chase Rescue Squad Headquarters at noon to re-announce his candidacy and mix with voters, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend will have already been meeting and greeting around the county for hours.
She is scheduled to spend all day at various Montgomery County venues to meet with voters, make statements and collect endorsements from local groups and officials.
The dual pilgrimages signal Montgomery County’s growing political clout, and its importance in this fall’s gubernatorial election. With an affluent population of over 870,000 and growing, it offers eager candidates more votes for the picking than any other county in the state.
The county was a critical battleground in the last two governor’s races. In 1994, the year Republican challenger Ellen Sauerbrey nearly tied Gov. Parris N. Glendening in the statewide election, she lost Montgomery County by almost 50,0000 votes.
During their 1998 rematch, Glendening won statewide by just 10 percent but trounced the Republican in Montgomery County by nearly 70,000 more votes.
But political spectators said it would be wrong to assume that the county is a sure bet for Democrats. After all, this the same county that has kept Republican Rep. Connie Morella in office since 1987.
“We’re free spirits here. We’re so-called `issues oriented,'” asked Montgomery Journal columnist Blair Lee.
“There’s no real hierarchy,” Lee said. “The typical candidate gets to our borders, asks who’s in charge, and finds out it’s no one. Then he gets exasperated and goes home.”
Judging by their travel itineraries and clear intent on grabbing up Montgomery County votes, Townsend and Ehrlich are unlikely to give up and go anywhere.
Townsend, who has not officially declared her candidacy, is widely considered the county favorite. But Ehrlich campaign manager Paul Schurick was optimistic Friday about Ehrlich’s potential to win Montgomery County voters over — and not just because Morella will be at Ehrlich’s side when he makes his formal declaration Monday.
“I’m looking forward to this, because Bob Ehrlich is unlike any Republican candidate these voters have ever seen,” he said.
Townsend’s aides disagree, and have already started painting Ehrlich as an extreme right-winger in the mold of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
But Schurick said that while Ehrlich is a Republican, he’s also pro- choice, pro-environment, pro-social services and pro-Inter-county Connector, a hot-button transportation issue in the county.
In other words, an issues candidate — just Montgomery County’s style.