Clash of the Elephants?

July 23, 1993

Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall is telling folks he's now "95 percent certain" he will be running for governor next year. Rep. Helen D. Bentley is telling people who ask her that she is 95 percent of the way toward announcing her bid for the governorship. That could make 1994 an usual -- and possibly a banner -- year for Maryland's beleaguered Republican Party.

Hotly contested primaries are almost unheard of among state Republicans. Since the GOP is so outnumbered here in Maryland (1.5 million Democrats versus 700,000 Republicans), leaders have discouraged primary challenges. They felt it would sap the resources of the underdog party.

But that has left Republican nominees at a disadvantage. Democrats grab all the publicity during the summer campaign season. The public rightly focuses on the Democratic free-for-alls in the primary. When the dust has settled, the eventual winner of the Democratic race is well-known to voters. The Republican nominee, meanwhile, must spend much of his or her time and money in September and October playing catch-up.

That may not happen next year. There already is a spirited Republican battle for the attorney general nomination between Del. Robert Flanagan and former U.S. Attorney Richard Bennett. Meanwhile, two candidates are seeking the gubernatorial nomination -- Baltimore County Del. Ellen Sauerbrey and former GOP nominee William Shepard. With Mr. Neall and Mrs. Bentley -- both high-visibility officeholders -- on the verge of jumping in, too, the clash of the elephants could rival the donnybrook shaping up on the Democratic side. (Only in the races for U.S. Senate and comptroller are Republicans hurting: No viable Republican wants to take on incumbent Sen. Paul Sarbanes, and Comptroller Louis Goldstein remains a Maryland icon.)

Last winter, Mr. Neall was considered a shoo-in for the GOP nomination. But he hesitated to make the move. Into the void stepped Mrs. Bentley -- sort of. Then she started to have second thoughts. The two elected officials have been warily waiting for one or the other to drop out of contention, much to the discomfort of party leaders. Now, apparently, the time for hesitation is coming to an end. Mr. Neall says he will run regardless of what Mrs. Bentley decides. A decision from the Baltimore County congresswoman could come this fall.

Maryland voters are the clear winners in this GOP maneuvering. For once, the pronouncements and campaign stances of GOP candidates will be widely disseminated. There is promise of an exciting Republican primary. The differences in political philosophy and campaign themes among Republicans will be highlighted, just as has happened traditionally among Democratic candidates. That will give voters a much greater understanding of the two parties' positions on state issues next year. Voters should wind up with a truly contested general election in 1994. That's worth cheering about, no matter who is the eventual winner.

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