Posted: Feb. 9, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

Delaware Republicans got a look at something Saturday night at the Kent County Lincoln Day Dinner in Dover that they had not seen themselves for more than 10 years.

A Republican governor.

They did it by importing as their guest speaker Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a former four-term congressman who became an instant political darling as the first Republican to be elected Maryland's governor since 1966. He did it last year in a state where 57 percent of the voters are Democrats by beating a Kennedy -- Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, then the lieutenant governor.

The envy was palpable. "He's one of the most sought-after speakers in the Republican Party, because of the surprise victory, because of who he beat and because he's a rising star," said Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman for Delaware.

Ehrlich spoke to a sold-out crowd of 565 people at the Dover Sheraton Hotel & Conference Center, his attractiveness enhanced further because first lady Kendel Ehrlich, a lawyer, is a 1983 graduate of the University of Delaware.

At 45, Ehrlich represented what Delaware Republicans are only dreaming about -- a proven and youthful leader with a future. Their last candidate to be elevated to the Congress or the governorship, the premier offices here, was U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle when he was elected governor in 1984. Back then, Castle was 45, too.

Ehrlich gave a half-hour pep talk on what it takes to win a race you are expected to lose. He offered five rules:

--Draft your own plan and follow it, even if others do not understand what you are doing.

--Don't be your own fund raiser.

--The quality of your television advertising is all-important.

--Take advantage of your advantages. (Example -- he was a Maryland native, which Townsend was not.)

--Take risks.

Ehrlich's audience included two candidates who want to run for governor next year -- William Swain Lee, a retired Superior Court judge, and Michael D. Protack, an airline pilot, both of whom bought tables at $350 to make the point. Lee took a part of Ehrlich's message particularly to heart.

"I don't have to make those [fund-raising] phone calls I hate. Let me go out and do the things I'm good at," Lee said.

Maybe, maybe not. "If my candidate thinks he's going to run for governor without making phone calls, he's got another think coming," said Donald C. Mell, a political adviser to Lee.

Lee is regarded as the front-runner for the gubernatorial nomination in what is expected to be a race against Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a first-term Democrat who has said she will seek re-election. Democrats have controlled the office since the 1992 election.

Ehrlich noted that even the most successful campaigns take their toll. He went to so many crab cake dinners -- the equivalent of Delaware chicken dinners -- that he was having nightmares by the end. "A really big crab cake was chasing me down an alley," he said.

Ehrlich also pointed out that he managed to win a state with a population that is 29 percent African-American by running with Michael S. Steele, now Maryland's first black lieutenant governor. It was a remark made more significant by the circumstances in which he delivered it.

This was a Lincoln Day Dinner, named for the first Republican president who became known as the Great Emancipator. This was Black History Month in a state where the Republican Party sent out a press release to call attention to its efforts to run biographical sketches of famous African-Americans on its Web site.

This was also a dinner in which the African-Americans waiting on the tables appeared to outnumber those in the crowd.

If there was any hint of tension in the room, it came from Maryland's interest in exploring the legalization of slot machines and creating competition with Delaware. As state House Speaker Terry R. Spence told Ehrlich to group laughter, "If you'll hold back the slots . . . like 10 or 20 years, we'd appreciate it."

With the dinner held almost in the shadow of Dover Downs and its casino, Ehrlich quipped about what he called his real reason for attending. "I just wanted to visit a bunch of Marylanders and our money," he said.