Maryland Voters Are Moe Critical, Less Predictable

BARRY RASCOVAR

August 15, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Paul Tsongas is a popular guy these days. So is Ross Perot. Virtually every Maryland candidate contemplating a run for governor next year has embraced one of these iconoclasts.

And no wonder. Mr. Tsongas coasted to victory over Bill Clinton in Maryland's 1992 Democratic presidential primary with a suburban strategy that could set new standards for future statewide elections. Then in November, Mr. Perot highlighted the discontent among a strong minority of voters -- 271,000 strong -- who could provide the winning margin in next year's state races.

The dynamics of Maryland's politics have changed in the past decade. The state is no longer "safe" for liberal Democratic politicians. Maryland voters are more cautious, more skeptical of traditional liberal solutions, more disparaging of government, more open to new ideas. Messrs. Tsongas and Perot offered plenty of those last year. Now a horde of political opportunists want to duplicate their success.

With incumbent Gov. William Donald Schaefer barred by the Constitution from seeking a third consecutive term, the field is wide open. Into that void have stepped nine hopefuls. All of them want to run against those who have led government -- in the Perot mode -- and for innovative and forceful changes -- a la Paul Tsongas. All of them want to be viewed as outsiders seeking to replace a discredited administration that has encountered a storm of criticism in its second term.

At this early stage -- 13-plus months before the primary and 16-plus months before the general election -- the presumed frontrunners are two elected officials who might not even be in the race this time next year: Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Baltimore County Rep. Helen Delich Bentley. Why are they the frontrunners? Because they have the greatest name recognition, and that is all the polls reflect so far in advance of the actual campaign.

Both candidates have significant liabilities that opponents would focus on during the heat of a campaign. These liabilities could quickly erase any early advantage they gain from being well-known.

In many respects, the 1994 election resembles the 1978 gubernatorial race. Back then, five candidates (later narrowed to four) battled for the Democratic nomination and four others fought for the GOP vote. The winner in the Democratic primary and then the general election was long shot Harry R. Hughes, derisively referred to as a "lost ball in tall grass." The current candidates want to repeat this Hughes miracle.

Each candidate, though, has a slightly different strategy for making it through the primary and then the general election. Here is a snapshot view of how these candidates stack up. Remember, though, that there's a long, long way to go in this contest. Many of these individuals will drop out and unexpected developments can dramatically change the complexion of this race.

First, the Democrats.

* KURT L. SCHMOKE. Baltimore's mayor is, indeed, well-known and personable. He is also black, which gives him a distinct advantage in majority-black Baltimore City and majority-black Prince George's County -- an initial base of support that appears broader than other Democrats in the race. He's a certified "friend of Bill's" and is likely to adopt a Clintonesque campaign that is moderately liberal, though clearly pro-city. He will appeal to the liberal conscience of enlightened suburbanites, especially in Howard and Montgomery counties.

Liabilities: His management of the city will be labeled "incompetent" by opponents. His drug-legalization stance will trouble many outside the city; a substantial majority of white city voters has opposed him in past elections; his support among Prince George's blacks won't be solid, and his alliance with county executive candidate Wayne Curry will cost him votes, especially from supporters of rival candidate Sen. Beatrice Tignor; he'll encounter strong anti-city sentiment in Montgomery and rural areas; Republicans could have a field day running against a "tax and spend Democrat."

* MELVIN A. STEINBERG. The lieutenant governor can claim credit for masterminding many of the top achievements of the Schaefer administration's first term. He's recognized as a skilled legislator and consensus-seeker. He has a strong base of support in Jewish areas of Baltimore County and Montgomery County, and among state senators in rural and suburban areas.

Liabilities: He can't deny being part of the disliked Schaefer team, even though he's been stripped of all duties by the governor these past three years; he's expressed no vision or plan for Maryland's future; he's an "old pol" at a time when voters think that's a dirty name; his image is as a dealmaker, not a leader.

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