Who Would Run Against Bush? Schaefer!

March 17, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR

A triumphal William Donald Schaefer returns today from Kuwait City and his first venture into big-time diplomacy. It could lead to an even bigger move by Maryland's unpredictable governor -- a campaign for president.

This is not a joke. Mr. Schaefer is very serious about running in the Democratic primaries next year. He said so at a press conference last month. Yet no one believes him.

There's a leadership void within the Democratic Party. Even Mr. Schaefer admits he's a loyal supporter of Republican George Bush. Yet, as he told reporters, "The Democrats are going to have to put up a candidate. Who else, who else but me? Who else? Who, right now, would run against Bush today? Me."

Why would he run? First, because he hates what he's now doing and wants desperately to find an excuse to get away from Annapolis.

Mr. Schaefer has been thoroughly frustrated by this year's General Assembly. His program is in shambles. He's not on speaking terms with legislative leaders. He's at war with his own lieutenant governor.

And he is getting little respect from voters, with two-thirds of them telling pollsters Mr. Schaefer isn't doing a good job.

Time to get out of town.

There's no better way than a run for the presidency. The early primary states are tailor-made for Mr. Schaefer: shoe-leather politicking in Iowa and New Hampshire. It would also give him a reason to avoid next year's General Assembly session -- a thought he must relish.

That brings us to reason No. 2 for a Schaefer candidacy: He could actually win the early contests.

Iowa, the first, is a caucus state. That means visiting small towns, talking with Iowans at "coffees", at the local barber shop or food store, at the factory gates and at farmhouse meetings. A Schaefer bus caravan would fit right in.

Iowans will love him. He's gruff but cuddly. He's unlike any politician they've met. He's got a "cut the red tape and do it now" attitude. He cares about people. He wears his heart on his sleeve.

Mr. Schaefer could present himself as the magician who turned Baltimore into a tourism mecca, who knows how to heal the country's urban ills, who has held the line for 20 years as mayor and governor against a major tax increase, who is committed to first-rate colleges and public education and economic development. A man of action. It would make for great media ads.

He could even present himself as a foreign-policy expert, having become a friend of the emir of Kuwait, witnessed the emir's dramatic return to Kuwait City and discussed reconstruction efforts with VIPs. Add that to his earlier tours of the Middle East, the Far East, Europe and the Soviet Union. Why he's a budding Henry Kissinger!

In a crowded field of candidates, Mr. Schaefer could win. After all, a little-known Jimmy Carter took the Iowa caucus in 1976 and gained instant front-runner status. (Though he actually "lost," 40-30 percent: the largest bloc of Iowa votes were cast for undecided delegates.)

Or perhaps the governor is correct when he says no leading Democrats would be foolish enough to oppose a wildly popular George Bush. He might find himself in Iowa with no challenger except a failed innkeeper, George McGovern. It would be a Schaefer landslide.

Then it's on to New Hampshire as the media's new star. He'd be on the cover of Time. Every political columnist would write about "Schaefer's surprise." With such massive, free publicity Don Schaefer would become a household name.

By then, some of Mr. Schaefer's problems in Maryland might catch up with him: his temper tantrums, his poison-pen letters, his profane outbursts, his plan to cut welfare benefits, his $800 million tax "reform" plan that legislators rejected.

But all that would barely tarnish America's newest political novelty. New Hampshire citizens would adore Schaefer antics at town meetings and his homey approach to folks as he strolls down the snowy Main Streets of every hamlet his bus can reach. Conservatives would love his "no major tax increase" record and they would go ga-ga over his plan to cut welfare.

Chalk up another primary victory for William Donald Schaefer.

That might be the end of the line, though. A batch of primaries in early March, including Maryland, could prove disastrous. A poll last week showed 78 percent of Marylanders opposed to a Schaefer try for the presidency (89 percent in Baltimore County and even 71 percent in the city). He could be crushed in his home state and lose credibility.

By then, though, the governor would have a substantial block of votes. He might use this strength to broker the convention. Or parlay it into a vice presidential nomination. Then he could spend the rest of the year campaigning around the country. He could forget about his aggravations in the State House until Thanksgiving, 1992.

And when he returns to Maryland, he would be a man of stature despite the Democratic ticket's crushing defeat at the hands of George Bush. Mr. Schaefer could preside over the 1993 General Assembly with his status vastly elevated. He might even surprise lawmakers with his new-found tolerance and willingness to compromise.

Schaefer for President? Don't laugh too hard. Stranger things have happened.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of The Sun's editorial pages.

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