While public attention and discontent are focused on the 1992 presidential election, Maryland's 1994 governor's race is already well under way. In fact, potential candidates have been testing the waters for over a year.
Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, and Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening are assessing each other's chances in the Democratic primary, even though it's 28 months away. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin is thinking about it. They're all looking nervously over their shoulders at Mayor Schmoke.
For the first time in decades, Democrats are also looking nervously past the primary to the November 1994 general election and calculating which of their candidates can beat back the serious challenge expected from Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall or some other Republican.
Of course, it's too early for anyone to declare officially. But these men are already hard at work laying the foundations for their campaigns. They're moving around the state and giving uncontroversial little speeches to civic associations, business groups and political clubs. They're starting to build their statewide organizations. Most important, they're putting together their fund-raising committees.
For a year or more these men have been meeting with people whose political or financial backing they want. Here's how they operate at this early stage. Typically, the candidate asks a potential supporter to have breakfast or lunch with him.
Most people come to these meetings unprepared. They'll remember to check out the candidate's position on their own personal litmus tests -- a particular business issue, abortion, gun control. But mostly people listen politely to the candidate's polished spiel, ask whatever questions come to mind, and end up schmoozing about politics.
These meetings, however, give you a perfect opportunity to look the candidate straight in the eye and grill him on the critical issues which will determine this state's future. If you get a chance like this, don't blow it. Interrupt his canned remarks. Ask him questions like these:
* ''If you're elected, what will be your top priority as governor? What will you want to be remembered for?'' His answers to those two questions will reveal a great deal about his motivations, goals and authenticity.
* ''In this campaign, are there any positions you'll champion even if they take you down to defeat? In office, what goals will you pursue even if they jeopardize your chances for re-election?'' If he says he'll fight to his last breath for apple pie, the Orioles and Social Security, you'll get an idea of the kind of hero you'll be supporting.
* ''Name a few worthwhile state programs you intend to cut back or eliminate. What worthy projects will you give a low priority? Who will be asked to sacrifice as government must reduce services? Who should receive less? Who should pay more?'' Find out if this guy is prepared to talk honestly about the hard choices created by governmental restructuring.
* ''What will you do as governor to promote economic development?'' If he doesn't immediately begin to talk about education, he doesn't understand the global knowledge-based economy. If he doesn't even mention education in his answer to this question, make plans to support another candidate.
* Education is now government's most important function. So ask him a lot of questions about it. ''What specifically would you do to improve elementary and secondary education in Maryland? Our state now ranks 6th in per-capita income but 21st in per-pupil spending on education and 23rd in teacher salaries. How will you increase educational funding?'' Listen to whether he stresses concepts like accountability, performance outcomes, choices, annual testing, programs like Schools for Success, rewards and penalties for individual schools based on objective performance measures.
Does he favor state take-overs of individual schools which repeatedly fail to meet minimum student-performance requirements? How will he handle resistance to change from local school boards, city and county councils, teachers' unions, principals' unions, educational bureaucracies and other entrenched constituencies?
Cross-examine a mayor or county executive on how well the schools have done under his administration. Ask him to send you the numbers. Make him prove his claims.
* If you run a business in central Maryland, think about your trained work-force needs in the next two decades and then bore in on this question: ''How will you eliminate the disparities in per-pupil educational expenditure which continue to exist between the wealthy suburban counties and the poorer subdivisions, particularly Baltimore?'' Go on to ask him what he will do about the growing and crippling concentration of this state's poor people in Baltimore? Make sure he's prepared to fight for the city.
Of course, there are a lot of other key questions. Ask them. Push on these guys. How would they restore the lost momentum in the state's higher-education system? Will they commit the money necessary to catapult the University of Maryland at College Park into the front ranks of America's public research universities? Do they support the UMAB-UMBC merger?
Do they support land-use controls to stop the suburban sprawl which is inexorably destroying the Chesapeake Bay? Do they regard drugs as primarily a criminal-law or a public-health problem? Is multi-million dollar new-prison construction the answer to violent inner-city crime? Do they understand venture capital and the relationship between scientific research and economic development?
Maryland's next governor must have vision and courage. If a candidate talks pretty but doesn't demonstrate these qualities in answering your tough questions, you may enjoy your lunch, but he's wasting your time.
Tim Baker writes on issues of city and state.