Clinton's no lock in Maryland

Frank A. DeFilippo

July 23, 1992|By Frank A. DeFilippo

IF BILL CLINTON thinks he can waltz through Maryland just because he's a Democrat, he'd better take a good look at the primary election returns.

He'll do well in Baltimore City, all right, and in Prince George's County, where the black population is now a notch above 50 percent. However, across the country as well as in Maryland, there's a brooding question over black voter turnout. So if Mr. Clinton wants to win in November, he's got to claim the white-bread suburbs he lost to Paul Tsongas in the primary. That will be much easier said than accomplished.

Mr. Clinton must bear in mind, too, that although Democrats still outnumber Republicans by 2 1/2 to 1, no Democrat has carried Maryland since Jimmy Carter in 1976. In 1988, for example, Michael Dukakis carried only three subdivisions -- Baltimore City, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

In the primary election, Mr. Clinton built his campaign around Mayor Kurt Schmoke's City Hall and virtually ignored Montgomery, Howard and Baltimore counties, where many of the so-called Reagan Democrats reside. He appears to be following the same narrow strategy for the general election.

Come November, for the first time, voters in suburbs across the country will outnumber those in the cities. And now that H. Ross Perot has withdrawn from a game he never understood in the first place, Montgomery County -- along with other suburban counties -- becomes crucial.

It's true that Democrats left New York a unified party. But as soon as they returned to Mother Earth Maryland, the old rivalries and cat-fights were remembered and revived.

To begin with, Mr. Clinton has turned over the direction of his campaign to Larry Gibson, Mr. Schmoke's political pit bull, mainly because Mr. Schmoke and Mr. Gibson are simpatico with the Democratic presidential nominee's urban policies. More to the point, Mr. Gibson's role probably has as much to do with eventually fulfilling Mr. Schmoke's statewide ambitions than it does with electing a president.

With Mr. Perot in the contest, Mr. Clinton needed only 34 percent of the vote to win. With Mr. Perot on the junk heap, Mr. Clinton now needs 51 percent. Political hobbyists are questioning whether Mr. Gibson has the disposition to reach out beyond black precincts to assemble a statewide political work force and whether xenophobic suburbanites will respond to his bully-boy tactics.

Mr. Gibson's last statewide performance was in 1986 as campaign director for gubernatorial candidate Stephen H. Sachs. Under Mr. Gibson's direction, Mr. Sachs had his head handed to him by Gov. William Donald Schaefer. For that and a couple of other celebrated reasons -- among them Mr. Gibson's strident defense of a city school superintendent whom then-Mayor Schaefer forced out of office 18 years ago -- Mr. Schaefer dislikes Mr. Gibson intensely. (He also has a long memory.)

For his part, even though Mr. Schaefer finally weakened and cast his convention vote for Mr. Clinton, he's still not enamored of the Democratic standard-bearer. The governor is still miffed over Mr. Clinton's arms-length attitude in the primary, an attitude that drove Mr. Schaefer into the waiting embrace of Mr. Tsongas.

Then there's the feud between Mr. Schaefer, Maryland's top Democrat, and Nathan Landow, state party chairman until he resigned Tuesday to become a national fund-raiser for the Clinton-Gore campaign. It was a graceful exit for the wealthy developer from Bethesda, whom Governor Schaefer had been trying to give the hook for months. But Mr. Landow outflanked Mr. Schaefer by employing a charming Maryland tradition: He gave each local Democratic Central Committee $2,500 out of the state party treasury. Nobody ever said democracy in action comes cheap.

This time, however, Mr. Landow attempted to jab Mr. Schaefer in his softest spot: In a clash of giant egos, Mr. Landow tried to hog the microphone and thereby deprive Mr. Schaefer of television exposure during the roll call of the states on nomination night at the Democratic National Convention. If Mr. Schaefer subscribes to one political rule more than any other, it's an ancient one: Don't get mad; get even.

In Prince George's, meanwhile, County Executive Parris N. Glendening endorsed Mr. Tsongas in the primary. He'll have little say in the general election, though, because he's despised by the big shots in PeeGee politics -- state Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller, Secretary of State Winfield Kelly and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer.

Three major metropolitan counties, Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel, are under Republican control. And the way political matters go in Montgomery County, come Christmas the good burghers will still be organizing Mr. Clinton's campaign.

Add to the mix the fact that President Bush has been schmoozing the governor. Mr. Schaefer's been a frequent guest at the White House and a willing sidekick during Mr. Bush's frequent excursions into Maryland for photo backdrops. Mr. Schaefer won't say whether he's voting for Mr. Clinton or Mr. Bush. When asked, he mumbles, "I'm a Democrat."

As if that weren't enough, the abortion question on the Maryland ballot in November may be a silver bullet. Although extremists on both sides of the question are single-issue voters, they're likely to express their sentiments in presidential voting as well. Mr. Clinton's pro-choice; Mr. Bush is pro-file.

Welcome to America in Miniature, Bill.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes every other week on Maryland politics.

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