The Other Hot Race in Prospect for '94

BARRY RASCOVAR

August 22, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

While all eyes are focused on next year's gubernatorial election, a quiet campaign for another statewide office is shaping up as a knock 'em, sock 'em affair. And like the gubernatorial races, there could be fireworks in both the primary and the general election.

Attorney general is not an office many Marylanders think much about. The state's top lawyer may run a huge law firm representing state government and the consumer in certain matters, but it's a cerebral, out-of-the-public-spotlight job.

The current occupant, J. Joseph Curran, won in a rough-and-tumble three-way primary in 1986, then had no opposition in the general election, no primary opposition when he ran for re-election in 1990 and only token opposition in that year's general election. He's been so bland in office he oftens seems to blend in with the furniture.

But now Mr. Curran is running for governor -- kind of. He's half in and half out of that race. ("Testing the waters" is the operative cliche.) Most political analysts expect he'll eventually decide to throw in the towel: the race is too expensive, he's too much of a long-shot candidate, he's not a dynamic campaigner and he's made precious little headway.

Yet while Mr. Curran has been concentrating on the governorship,two appealing Democratic candidates have started campaigning for his current job. If the attorney general doesn't make his re-election intentions clear soon, he may have trouble getting re-nominated.

The biggest Democratic challenge comes from Eleanor Carey. She lost to Mr. Curran in 1986, finishing third but only by 28,000 votes. She clobbered Mr. Curran and Russell T. Baker III in both Prince George's and Montgomery Counties -- which should alarm Mr. Curran given the pivotal role these jurisdictions could play in the 1994 election.

Also troubling to Mr. Curran should be the fact that his base of support in Baltimore City is shrinking. The city will be less of a factor in next year's elections than in the past because the city now has far fewer registered voters.

Ms. Carey comes into this campaign with a big plus on her side: She should do well with female voters. Her previous tenure as deputy attorney general, as a legal commentator on local television and her 1986 statewide campaign give her the credibility and experience that could impress voters.

Further complicating Mr. Curran's re-nomination is the presence of Patrick J. Smith, a Rockville lawyer who ran Paul Tsongas' successful presidential primary campaign here last year. He knows how to organize an election drive focused on the suburban voters who gave Mr. Tsongas his victory in Maryland. And 1994 could be another year of voter discontent: A Tsongas-style message might play well in the populous suburbs.

Even if Mr. Curran should survive the primary, his biggest hurdle could lie in the general election: The leading Republican candidate, Richard D. Bennett, is the best GOP contender for that office in decades.

First, though, Mr. Bennett has to fend off a primary challenge from Del. Robert Flanagan of Ellicott City. Mr. Flanagan is one of the State House's best legal beagles, spotting flaws in bills or asking the tough, skeptical questions. But Mr. Bennett has enthusiastic support from much of the state's Republican hierarchy and party workers.

Besides, Mr. Bennett is a first-rate campaigner. He's raising lots of money, has a statewide network of GOP friends and is close to Maryland's best-known Republican, Rep. Helen D. Bentley.

A Bennett-Curran race could prove explosive.

Mr. Bennett, who resigned this spring as U.S. attorney for Maryland, can boast of accomplishments as an aggressive federal prosecutor of white-collar and violent criminals, especially drug-peddlers. That's something Mr. Curran can't match.

His legal activism is in sharp contrast to Mr. Curran's laid-back approach: Mr. Bennett intends to challenge Mr. Curran for his limp response to the spread of gambling in Maryland and his non-involvement in controversial state contract awards. If the continuing federal probe of lottery contracts leads to charges, Mr. Bennett could justifiably claim credit and also ask, "Where was Joe Curran?"

Still, Mr. Curran goes into a race for attorney general as the favorite. The last elected Republican attorney general was Alexander Armstrong in 1919 -- 74 years ago. The power of incumbency is considerable. Mr. Curran has been a statewide figure (albeit in the deep background) for 11 years as lieutenant governor and then attorney general. He is well liked and is a pillar of integrity.

But Mr. Curran has never received a stiff general election challenge. And 1994 could well be a very Republican year in Maryland.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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