This the first installment of a weekly column by C. Fraser
Smith, who covers state politics for The Sun. It will appear every Wednesday in this section.
At a convention in Ocean City recently, a lobbyist offered Governor Schaefer a bright red-and-blue Clinton for President lapel pin.
Mr. Schaefer fell back in mock horror.
"I can't take that!" he cried.
"Oh, I'm sorry," the lobbyist said. "I thought you were a Democrat."
He is, of course. But, when asked again by reporters last week if he would support Bill Clinton or George Bush this year, Mr. Schaefer replied:
"Yes, I do. I certainly do."
In case the governor misunderstood the question, it was repeated. Bush or Clinton?
"Yes, I do. I certainly do," said Maryland's chief executive.
Was he trying to help his friend, the president? Was he trying to hurt or help Mr. Clinton?
Was there some other objective? Democrats are of two minds about this gubernatorial ambiguity. Some are miffed. Others applaud.
The latter group says Mr. Schaefer has never served his party more generously than now as he withholds his endorsement.
Nailed to the governmental wall by budget woe, William Donald Schaefer is low in the polls. His support this year could be like a hug from Typhoid Mary.
"People came into our Democratic Party tent at the Frederick County Fair and they didn't have good things to say about him," says Tom Slater, a Frederick lawyer and Democratic committeeman. Mr. Slater thinks the governor is getting "a bum rap" -- one deserved by the Bush administration, he says. Yet, Mr. Slater would advise the Clinton campaign to avoid appearing with Mr. Schaefer in Frederick County.
If it's that bad in Frederick, imagine how useful an endorsement by the governor would be on the Eastern Shore, which Mr. Schaefer once likened to a privy.
During the March primary, a Clinton campaign worker called radio stations on the Shore to let them know that Mr. Schaefer had endorsed former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas. The theory: If Schaefer were for Mr. Tsongas, Shore voters would be for anyone else, maybe even Bill Clinton.
For the time being, Mr. Schaefer seems content to keep people guessing. He is unlikely to show up today in the Prince George's town of Clinton, where the candidate of the same name is expected to campaign.
The governor actually does have an important meeting in Annapolis.
Mr. Clinton's Maryland campaign staff is careful to say that Maryland's leading Democrat has done all it has asked him to do. "Governor Schaefer and many of his supporters have been very hospitable to our efforts to get Governor Clinton's message to every voter in the state, Democrat and Republican," says Jon Spalter, the Clinton-Gore spokesman.
In fact, Mr. Schaefer has been more hospitable to Mr. Bush. They have met frequently in Maryland when the president was here for business or pleasure: at Camp David, on a golf course, on the Chesapeake Bay, at an East Baltimore health center and in a Catonsville elementary school. Mr. Schaefer even wears the same brand of dress shoe favored by the president.
The governor of Arkansas, Mr. Schaefer tells associates, has been too willing to tailor positions to suht his ambition. Mr. Bush has been accused of the same failing, but never mind. Democrats and Republicans alike have wondered if Maryland's leading Democrat might endorse the Republican.
"No way" and "Never," says the governor's chief political aide, Pam Kelly. She says Mr. Schaefer has helped Mr. Clinton at least indirectly by raising $80,000 for all the Democratic candidates running in Maryland this year. And he did not object when two of his Cabinet secretaries campaigned with Mr. Clinton. Mr. Schaefer is a governor with big money problems. He doesn't need enemies in high places.
The Alan Keyes for U.S. Senate campaign hopes for what it calls a "stealth" vote on Nov. 3.
Somewhat discouraging poll figures may not be an accurate measure of the candidate's strength, says Sean Paige, the Keyes campaign spokesman.
He says polls continue to show Mr. Keyes hovering at 29 percent in his race against Barbara A. Mikulski. "We don't find it very alarming. We think there are a lot of people in the black community who don't want to say they'll vote Republican. For a lot of black folks, the Republican label carries some baggage.
"It's changing, but there's hangover from years past," Mr. Paige said.
In the voting booth, he said, the stealth factor will translate into a bigger vote for the black Republican.
Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton was scheduled visit Maryland today.
He was scheduled to speak at the Clinton Village shopping center in Clinton, Prince George's County.
The Arkansas governor was expected to tour the shopping center, speak with shop keepers and then speak on the subject of small business.
The speech was to be given outside at the shopping center.