OCEAN CITY -- Feisty, Clinton-bashing Maryland Republicans made Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall the front-runner for their party's 1994 gubernatorial nomination yesterday.
Though proclaiming the virtues of unity and the potential for GOP gains next year, the rank and file watched a rift grow wider between party leaders and Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a Second District Republican.
Meeting here for its spring convention, the party heard its chairman, Calvert countian Joyce Lyons Terhes, call President Clinton "a philandering, lying, draft dodger [who] would let his wife be president of the United States."
But the day's major business was a straw poll of 368 elected party officials and central committee members.
Mr. Neall had 109 first-place votes to 69 for Del. Ellen Sauerbrey of Baltimore County and 53 for William S. Shepard, the party's 1990 nominee.
"I didn't know what to expect," said Mr. Neall. "I was looking for a signal that there was some enthusiasm."
The race for attorney general in the poll was a landslide for former U.S. Attorney Richard D. Bennett with 193 first-place votes to 77 for Del. Robert Flanagan of Howard County.
Del. Ronald Franks, a dentist and first-term legislator from Queen Anne's County, led a field of seven U.S. Senate candidates.
And Sen. John A. Cade of Anne Arundel County, the Senate minority leader who long has been respected for his fiscal expertise, narrowly defeated Larry Epstein, an accountant and the party's 1990 nominee, in the race for comptroller. Mr. Cade had 100 first-place votes to 97 for Mr. Epstein.
When the convention opened, many had hoped the muddled gubernatorial picture would become clearer. It did -- and it didn't.
Mr. Neall has seemed a reluctant candidate in recent months, all but withdrawing at one point. Nevertheless, he has made the round of county-organization "Lincoln Day dinners," speaking at many and continuing to hold himself out as a candidate -- if the party could resolve internal differences. Some said his vote total would have been higher if he had not seemed so ambivalent.
Mr. Neall said he was "encouraged" by the poll and by the consensus-seeking process which, he said, could save money and avoid divisive primaries.
But he and other party members waited in vain for a run, no-run decision from its national committeewoman, Rep. Helen Delich Bentley.
Mrs. Bentley's indecision freezes contributors and volunteers who want to know her plans before committing to another contender.
Refusing to be forced into a decision, Mrs. Bentley declined to participate officially in the straw poll. And yesterday, she again frustrated party leaders by saying she might form a committee to explore further the possibility of leaving Congress to try for the governorship.
In a brief speech, she first scolded the party for failing to put money behind a challenge of legislative redistricting in the state -- and for failing to clarify various fund-raising issues.
Then she said she would form her committee if polling shows she could win and if she gets a favorable ruling on various fund-raising matters -- specifically if money she has raised to run again for Congress can be used in a state race.
State officials have said that money cannot be used in a state-level race.
Her announcement brought noticeably meager applause. While expressing their admiration for her leadership, party members made clear their hope for an early decision.
"Every week that goes by in a holding pattern is a lost opportunity," Delegate Sauerbrey said.
MARYLAND REPUBLICAN STRAW VOTE
Here are results of a straw poll the Maryland Republican Party conducted among 368 elected public officials and members of the party's state central committee. Totals here reflect only first-place votes, although the poll respondents also gave their second- and third-place choices for each office. Reps. Helen Delich Bentley and Constance A. Morella and Party Chairman Joyce Lyons Terhes were not on the ballot, but several respondents wrote in their names.
Robert R. Neall, Anne Arundel County executive 109
Del. Ellen Sauerbrey, Baltimore County 69
William S. Shepard, 1990 GOP candidate for governor 53
Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, Baltimore County 22
Sen. John A. Cade, Anne Arundel County 7
William Brock, former GOP national chairman 4
Edward Blanton, Baltimore County lawyer 0
Charles I. Ecker, Howard County executive 0
* ATTORNEY GENERAL
Richard D. Bennett, former U.S. attorney for Maryland 193
Del. Robert Flanagan, Howard County 77
Sen. John A. Cade, Anne Arundel County 100
Michele Dyson, 1992 5th Dist. congressional candidate 50
Larry Epstein, 1990 comptroller candidate 97
* U.S. SENATE
Del. Ronald Franks, Queen Anne's County 69
Sen. John A. Cade, Anne Arundel County 54
Del. Martha Klima, Baltimore County 40
Richard Taylor, GOP national committeeman 36
Rep. Constance A. Morella, Montgomery County 21
Del. Richard LaVay, Montgomery County 13
Joyce Lyons Terhes, Maryland party chairman 6
Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, Baltimore County 4
Roy Mason, Anne Arundel County lawyer 3
Frank Nethken, former Cumberland mayor 0