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Can anti-incumbent anger win for Ehrlich?

Yesterday, upon the stair,

I met a man who wasn’t there

He wasn’t there again today

I wish, I wish he’d go away …

Hughes Mearns

If you’re Bob Ehrlich, it’s too late for the man to go away. The idea that he might be there has drawn Ehrlich into a mighty difficult race. He has to hope now that he wasn’t seeing things.

The shadowy man in the poem represents the deeply disgruntled voter Ehrlich needs to make his third run for governor of Maryland more than a desperate grasp at a political future.

On Wednesday in Rockville and later in his hometown of Arbutus, the former Republican governor officially announced his candidacy.

He’s in. And if “the man” is in, Erlich may have a shot.

This theoretical presence is a stand-in for all the Tea Partyers, Republican, alienated Democrats and others who want to give Gov. Martin O’Malley the “former” label after four years.

The question, though, is this: Do these disaffected voters exist in sufficient numbers to make a Republican gubernatorial candidate viable in Maryland?

It may be the most important question of the year for a once-beaten challenger who virtually declared his career at an end when he lost his re-election try. Republicans, he seemed to say, would always have too steep a hill to climb in deep blue Maryland.

The ‘out there’ factor

Four years later, we have the “out there” factor, the belief that many Americans — even here — are determined to hold incumbents accountable for all the pain brought on by recession, and the costs of government and health care reform.

Talk radio and television have added a fierce drumbeat. The anti-incumbent movement piles Wall Street greed, government failure and stagnant wage growth at the doorstep of officeholders across the nation.

Bob Ehrlich must see this antagonism, even in Maryland, where many jobs are linked to government and where Democrats hold a significant voter registration advantage. The party also holds most local elected offices, meaning incumbents will have far more Election Day power than Republicans.

There could be a primary in the GOP, but Ehrlich is the party’s last and virtually only hope. Others would have run, but they would have been tokens, standard bearers. As always, the party needs candidates and it needs the kind of intensity that’s out there among voters to some extent, even in Maryland.

Ehrlich joined the Tea Partyers who rallied in front of the governor’s mansion at the start of the current legislative session, protesting everything governmental and Democratic in Maryland

Which is why the now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t man matters. He’s the key to Ehrlich’s candidacy this year.

Political calculus

Judging by the classic political calculus, the Republican candidate doesn’t have much of a chance.

A “punchers’ chance,” one seasoned Democratic scholar suggests, meaning Ehrlich might battle his way into viability. If nothing else, he is a competitor, so this assessment holds some hope.

Others have observed that he’s in striking distance in the polls — 6 or so percentage points behind O’Malley. That gap is about the same as O’Malley’s margin of victory in 2006 — suggesting that, even with unemployment and the other vexing issues, O’Malley has maintained his standing. If there was palpable, widespread unhappiness with O’Malley, one might think it would have shown up in the poll numbers.

One of Ehrlich’s assumed assets was the ability to raise the necessary campaign funds. But Republicans in Maryland, having generously bankrolled his last race, may wonder how energetically to write their checks this year.

In 2006, they were supporting an incumbent. This time, they will not be eager to displease a governor with contracts to give. There’s a reason incumbents are tough to beat.

Whether Maryland harbors a muscular anti-incumbent movement will be clearer as the campaign evolves. Either way, the man on the stair has done a service by creating the proper democratic environment.

A campaign should be a contest of passion and energy, hope and optimism. Ehrlich has promised new ideas for that man on the stair. He may not be there, but many other Marylanders are.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.