Mikulski's cakewalk

Bruce L. Bortz

September 24, 1992|By Bruce L. Bortz

ONCE, it was billed as a competitive race. Now, it's looked upon as an issueless non-contest -- a laugher.

Maryland's election for the U.S. Senate, which pits challenging Republican Alan Keyes against one-term Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski is so one-sided that congressional analysts have begun to call Ms. Mikulski's seat one of the safest in the country this November. They may be right.

That doesn't mean Ms. Mikulski is having an easy time of it. In fact, her race may typify a political problem uncommon to many congressional incumbents this year: When your polls give you a 2-to-1 lead, and when you've raised much more than twice as much money as the challenger, how do you make people pay some (but not too much) attention? How do you avoid the appearance of piling on, an act that could trigger sympathy for the out-spent, lesser-known challenger?

Barbara Mikulski's first television ads demonstrate how she's confronting the problem. Beginning last week, these somber, wordy, somewhat substantive 60-second spots put the incumbent in all the right places: in the community, listening to and performing needed services for constituents and, in the tricky District of Columbia milieu, taking forceful action on issues that get little attention from fellow senators, all but one of whom (Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan.) are male. In fact, one commercial extolling Ms. Mikulski's record on health care says she read and acted on a report critical of National Institutes of Health research priorities -- not enough money was being spent on women's health problems -- when many of her colleagues didn't bother.

The spots don't show Ms. Mikulski talking. They don't show her campaigning. They don't mention her opponent. They don't direct citizens to vote for her, nor do they mention the date of the election, Nov. 3. Later ads do urge voters to give Ms. Mikulski six more years. But the current batch tries to do nothing more than define her, her record and her priorities well before Mr. Keyes gets the chance to do it himself.

Fortunately for Ms. Mikulski and her electoral chances, Marylanders paid close attention earlier this year when Sun reporter John Fairhall broke a story later picked up by most of the other media. From disclosures to the Federal Election Commission, Mr. Fairhall determined that the Keyes campaign was paying Mr. Keyes, the candidate, a monthly stipend of $9,000.

Ms. Mikulski never had to say a word. In winning the Republican primary against a crowded field in March, Mr. Keyes had pushed taxing and spending issues. Now, how could he be the "everyman" his ads had depicted? His mortgage was more than most people earned in two months! Could this man be counted on to sweep fraud and waste out of Washington?

Only by chance was the state Republican party hierarchy apprised of Mr. Keyes' unusual financial arrangements. And in the end, it could not convince him to cut his political losses and remove himself from the campaign payroll. When the public focused again on Mr. Keyes' intransigence, arrogance and pitifully poor judgment, the candidate's political self-destruction was well along.

Subsequent polls have shown him more and more unpopular and falling farther and farther behind in the race. It shouldn't have happened. As a challenging non-office-holder with no record to defend, he should have been constantly on the attack against Ms. Mikulski, and he should have made political gains from doing so.

For his part, Mr. Keyes has run radio ads, most of them aimed at the black community, and he has launched a billboard campaign in Baltimore City that consists of a smiling picture of him, along with a caption, "Why Not One Of Us?" By making black voters aware of his race, Mr. Keyes hopes to cut down on Ms. Mikulski's enormous lead, a lead that's partly based on big numbers among black voters.

At one point, two big Mikulski fund-raisers were planned this fall. Now only one will go ahead -- an Oct. 14 bash with Barry Levinson at the Senator Theater. The incumbent also knows that a clear front-runner can run into trouble if she goes to the other extreme and hides, especially from debates. She's quietly agreed to participate in one Maryland Public Television-League of Women Voters debate Oct. 19. She'll also participate in radio and TV debates in the Washington area.

Given Mr. Keyes' lack of credibility on his best issue six months ago -- taxing and spending -- and the disclosures about his income, it's hard to see how he can now connect with either part of his initially planned coalition: white, conservative suburbanites, and more liberal, solidly Democratic urban blacks. the candidate does worse (or only a little better) than he did four years ago in challenging Sen. Paul Sarbanes, party leaders concede it will probably put an end to Mr. Keyes' once-promising political career in Maryland.

Bruce L. Bortz is editor of the Maryland Report, a biweekly newsletter on Maryland government, politics and business, as well as political analyst for Channel 45's "News at 10."

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