Awakening from the Republican Dream

BARRY RASCOVAR

February 07, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Clarification: Last week, I noted that former Sen. Bill Brock, now contemplating a race for governor, had once been Secretary of Commerce. That's incorrect. He was Secretary of ++ Labor under Ronald Reagan between 1985 and 1987, which might stand him in good stead with some local union officials if he makes a run for statewide office.

Remember that "Dream Team" that would sweep state Republicans to victory in the 1994 state elections? It's beginning to look more like a nightmare.

The main components of this ideal top-of-the-ticket combo are sending negative signals. This could leave the local GOP -- once again -- high and dry, with little choice but to fall back on tired failures of the past, outsiders little known to Maryland voters or officeholders with limited appeal.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Instead of Rep. Constance Morella running for the Senate and Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall running for governor as strong favorites, the GOP could wind up with a bunch of decided underdogs.

Mrs. Morella, so popular in Montgomery County she was reelected with 70 percent of the vote, now says she won't run for Senate if incumbent Democrat Paul Sarbanes, 60, is in the race. Mr. Sarbanes, you may remember, is this state's "stealth senator," who surfaces every six years to persuade voters he's deserving of another term. It's worked twice before and apparently Mrs. Morella thinks he can do it again. Why risk a safe House seat?

There are politicians who feel Mr. Sarbanes is vulnerable, that he can be beaten by a moderate Republican with strong support in the Washington suburbs. The incumbent is viewed as too liberal and out of step with the growing conservatism of the suburbs. But Republicans aren't lining up to take him on.

As for Mr. Neall, he's in an ideal position, for a Republican, to run for governor. He's got a solid base in Anne Arundel. He's a favorite of Democrats in the State House. He's got a proven track record as a tough-as-nails fiscal wizard.

Yet he may not run. One of his key financial backers, H. Furlong Baldwin, is also supporting Democratic Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg for the top State House job. Mr. Neall's recent reluctance to plunge fully into the race may be linked to Mr. Baldwin's straddle and the difficulties it could pose in raising money. Another concern: the strain of the governorship on his young family. Besides, he's a shoo-in for another term as Arundel executive.

If both Mr. Neall and Mrs. Morella take a dive, that leaves the Republican Party in bad shape. The latest rumor has former Tennessee Sen. Bill Brock -- a Maryland resident for some 16 years -- making a move to run for governor.

That's appealing to many in the party looking for an experienced middle-roader with enough financial clout to match the Democrats in campaign spending. Mr. Brock's credentials are indeed impressive -- congressman, senator, GOP national chairman, U.S. trade representative, secretary of commerce. But does he understand Maryland politics?

He may have lived here a decade and a half, but who would know? He hasn't participated in civic or government affairs. He hasn't taken the time to become familiar with the state's political players or plunged into local issues. He's a complete mystery to Democrats, though it is moderate Democrats who hold the key to electoral success here.

He also brings some troubling baggage. When he upset Vice President Albert Gore Jr.'s father for the Senate in 1970, Mr. Brock campaigned as an opponent of school busing. He was a favorite of the Nixon-Agnew regime. In Congress, he cast votes against Medicare and the Appalachia program. Though he was regarded as a thoughtful conservative and a reform-minded Republican senator, Mr. Brock lost in 1976 after only one term.

There is still plenty of time for Mr. Brock to get acquainted with the Maryland political landscape and perhaps even set his sights on the Sarbanes seat instead of the State House. But he'd be a long shot.

Another Republican mulling a race for governor also comes loaded with baggage: Rep. Helen Delich Bentley. She's popular in her 2nd Congressional District, but Mrs. Bentley's appeal statewide is unknown. Would she give up a safe seat (she'll be 71 shortly after the next election) for an uncertain future? Her ties to Nixon-era campaign abuses might prove embarrassing. Her conservative votes in Congress might not play well in the Washington suburbs and Baltimore City. Her staunch defense of Serbia in the Yugoslav civil war is a liability.

The bigger question is whether Mrs. Bentley is the kind of politician Marylanders want as governor. She doesn't know the Annapolis scene. She has a fiery temper and a tendency to speak her mind. Having witnessed the antics of William Donald Schaefer, will voters choose another governor prone to public tirades?

Republican leaders are in a bind. Their best candidates are developing cold feet. The second-tier candidates are suspect. The third-tier list is abysmal. Unless GOP leaders take steps to avert it, 1994 might not prove a breakthrough year after all. Ending the Democrats' domination could prove a long way off if the GOP misses its chance next year.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director for The Sun. His column on Maryland politics appears here each week.

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