By Chris Yakaitis, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - In the era before DVD players and Xboxes, Bobby Ehrlich and a football teammate at Princeton University would visit each other's dorm rooms and engage in that timeless ritual of college life, the bull session.
As Ken Foote recalls it, the conversations would range from economics to politics to sports - with a fair amount on religion as well. So when he graduated, Foote inscribed Bibles and gave them to three people at Princeton that he regarded highly.
Ehrlich was one of them.
Years later, Foote remembers visiting Ehrlich, by then a congressman from suburban Baltimore. "For whatever it's worth," Foote says, "he had that Bible there."
Today, Ehrlich says he prays each night at the Governor's Mansion with his 7-year-old son, Drew, and sometimes takes him to church on Sundays. But for now, Ehrlich says his children's values are being shaped at home.
"[Ehrlich] doesn't wear religion as a badge," says Nick Schloeder, one of Ehrlich's football coaches and social studies teachers at the elite Gilman School in North Baltimore. Instead, Schloeder hints that the key to understanding Ehrlich's character and values may lie more with America's other Sunday ritual - football.
"If you want to understand Bob Ehrlich, the governor, you have to understand that he was an inside linebacker," says Schloeder. "As an inside linebacker he's right there in the middle, where everybody's trying to block him . . . He loved it."
Ehrlich's hard-fought re-election campaign may be just what gets his adrenaline running. He has trailed Democratic opponent Martin O'Malley in every major poll released to date. But the margin separating them has decreased in recent weeks, and last week secured a valuable endorsement from The Washington Post - the first time the paper has endorsed a Republican for governor in at least 30 years.
"This is the biggest challenge of my life," Ehrlich says. "Challenges are what define me and just keep me going."
Those who knew Bob Ehrlich as a younger man tend to agree with this self-assessment. Schloeder and Redmond C. S. Finney, Gilman's headmaster during Ehrlich's time there, recall a dedicated student-athlete who excelled on the field and cracked the books until midnight or 1 o'clock in the morning.
Ehrlich's intensely focused dedication continued at Princeton, where the bulk of his time went to academics and the football team, which he co-captained during his senior year.
Foote says to psych himself up for games, "Bob listened to one of two things: He either listened to KISS ... or the Carpenters. No kidding."
Even after a career-ending injury prevented him from playing his senior year, Ehrlich showed up at "every single practice... at every single game," Foote says. "That was his team, and he had been asked to be captain of the team, and he never gave up that responsibility even though circumstances changed."
Finney says the governor has a personal moral code and strong social conscience, something that Gilman aimed to instill in its students.
"The school's mission statement has the words mind, body and spirit. I like to emphasize the words character, integrity, and also community service," Finney says. "What are you on this earth for? You're not here just to serve yourself. You're supposed to make a difference for the whole community."
Ehrlich says he does not attend any one church regularly, but travels around the state and attends services in various denominations. He describes himself as economically conservative and socially libertarian. He is pro-choice and supports embryonic stem cell research, though he belongs to a political party that generally opposes such positions.
Ehrlich remains in contact with Schloeder, Finney and other influential people from his past, but says he handles all of his major decisions on his own and has tried to present a consistent message throughout his political career. When confronted with emerging issues like the stem cell debate, Ehrlich says he gathers as many facts and as wide a range of opinions as he can find before taking a position, a practice that hearkens back to his college days.
"Bob always had a strong opinion. But what I appreciated is, if there was a contrary opinion expressed, like, 'You are nuts, Ehrlich,' he would very much listen," says Foote, who - like the governor - is a 1979 Princeton graduate.
Schloeder says the on-field aggressiveness Ehrlich displayed as a linebacker has given way to a measured and rational - though still strong-willed - approach to the issues.
"I don't think Bob Ehrlich has ever been in a fight," he says. "He's not a brawler."
Maybe not physically. But the spirit of Ehrlich's football days has manifested itself in his interactions with the General Assembly and, specifically, with onetime football star Michael Busch, speaker of the House of Delegates.
As Schloeder puts it:
"Busch was a very good running back in football and actually went to Temple and had a wonderful career. And he's the running back. He's supposed to either block or run over the linebacker. And the linebacker is supposed to either defeat the block or make the tackle. That's the way these two guys go at each other."
In campaign debates, Ehrlich has grown visibly agitated at times, using large hand gestures and an exasperated tone when challenging his opponent's claims.
"You watch him in the debates with Martin O'Malley, you know he's thinking, 'Let's go. You get the ball, you try to block me, and I'll try to defeat the block. And then we'll switch it around,'" says Schloeder.
"You're supposed to be smooth and attractive. And I don't think that's Bobby's forte. But in a way... I think people can look past that," adds Finney. "He is what he is and says what he thinks. He's authentic."
Those who support Ehrlich believe his authenticity will speak to Maryland voters on Nov. 7. In the meantime, Ehrlich is running as an incumbent underdog in a state where nearly two-thirds of voters are registered Democrats.
Though loathe to even broach the subject, Ehrlich says that if he is not re-elected, he will likely enter the private sector - though not as a lobbyist - and continue his work with cystic fibrosis research and with nonprofit organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. "If he loses, he won't be devastated. Because that's what happens. Sometimes they block you... Sometimes they block you and they run for 20 yards," Schloeder says. "Whatever happens in the election, he's not going anywhere. He comes out of a culture where you lose some, you win some."