Rumor mill cranks into high gear for 1994


August 11, 1993|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

As Maryland's potential candidates coyly decide whether to drop "potential" and become simply candidates in 1994, the political grapevine sags under a heavy burden of rumor.

This is the season of scenarios. Its frenetic pace is obscured by a disarming, dog days lull. Everyone waits for September and the promised announcements.

To reduce tension, the potentials and their backers are communicating and embellishing the most interesting scenarios. For best effect, hot new material must be whispered.

Much of it is nonsense, uttered with malice aforethought. Some is given credence by no more than a scintilla of truth. To repeat almost anything is to take it a step too far.

"I love this time of the year," says Larry Gibson, chief political adviser to Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, one of the most prominent potentials in the race for governor.

"The most active participant," Mr. Gibson says, "is the horse's mouth. You can start one of these stories and it will come back to you . . . from the horse's mouth."

Potential candidates and their promoters -- lobbyists, party regulars, political consultants, businessmen and others with a stake in the outcome -- are looking for the race that provides the most favorable set of circumstances.

They scan the early polling, discount it, and repeatedly run the race on paper. They do it to assess their chances -- and the chances of their rivals -- hoping to come up with a scenario that pushes opponents off the board completely or into another race.

"Wouldn't Mayor Schmoke be a lock for attorney general?" one of his potential gubernatorial competitors was asking the other day?

If Mr. Schmoke wants to be president or a Supreme Court justice, the argument continued, he could avoid problems like raising taxes that go along with a job like governor.

Speculation, hypothesis and wishful thinking are at play along with rumor. Those who are immersed in this game insist a carefully crafted scenario can have impact.

Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening, a Democratic candidate for governor, says the wary participant believes nothing in scenario season.

A political science professor at the University of Maryland, Mr. Glendening tells his students to look for three kinds of rumor:

Honest Gossip: What someone heard or thought they heard.

The Trial Balloon: A candidacy proposed to test reaction. The ploy can also be manipulative -- Mr. Schmoke for attorney general, for example.

The Definitely Malicious Rumor: When the perpetrator wants his opponent to look undecided, uncommitted or opportunistic.

Examples of the strategic rumor abound.

Reliable sources close to Rep. Helen Delich Bentley say the 70-year-old Republican congresswoman, thought to be considering a race for governor, is listening now when people suggest that she run for the U.S. Senate against the incumbent, Paul S. Sarbanes.

"She's letting people talk to her about it," the source said. Until now, she wouldn't sit still for the arguments.

In this case, the report is true, though its implication apparently is not:

"Some people want me to run for the Senate," Mrs. Bentley said yesterday. "They don't like Sarbanes."

But is she thinking about running for the senate?

"Not really," she says.

What she is considering is what she's been considering: a race for governor or for re-election to her 2nd District seat. She's not ready to say which.

And the source? He wants someone else to run for governor. Another Republican would be a stronger candidate, he thinks, while Mrs. Bentley would give Mr. Sarbanes fits.

And now, for the facts

Timothy Umbreit, a Severn Republican, says he will run for attorney general. Mr. Umbreit, 40, is one of the lawyers representing Ronald Walter Price, the former Northeast High School teacher charged with child sexual abuse.

Mr. Umbreit graduated from the University of Tennessee and the University of Baltimore Law School. He is married, has one son and has lived in Maryland since 1977.

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