GOP awaits Bentley's decision about 1994

THE POLITICAL GAME

November 03, 1993|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Staff Writer

The countdown has begun for Maryland Republicans. Within the next five days, Rep. Helen Delich Bentley is to reveal her 1994 election plans, presumably putting an end to a guessing game that has bewildered and infuriated party regulars for months.

Mrs. Bentley has said she will run statewide for governor or the U.S. Senate or seek re-election to her seemingly safe 2nd Congressional District seat.

Party leaders have been pressing her since January to make a decision. Last month they gave her an informal deadline of Nov. 8. She has said she would decide by then.

The wisdom of the moment is that Mrs. Bentley has decided to run for governor, in part because she is said to have confided as much to friends. Few believe they have heard her last word on the matter. At this point, only a public declaration of intentions meets that standard.

The Bentley saga is symptomatic of the problems afflicting the state's minority party as it readies itself for 1994, a year in which the GOP has high hopes of being a contender in statewide races rather than being ssued its quadrennial one-way ticket to Palookaville by the voters.

Had Mrs. Bentley said yes to a gubernatorial run months ago, she might have had the field largely to herself. No longer. Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the House minority leader, and William S. Shepard, the party's 1990 standard-bearer, are already running hard.

Both say they are in the race to stay, no matter what Mrs. Bentley does. The prospect of a bruising primary looms, with Mrs. Bentley and Mrs. Sauerbrey battling for the same Baltimore County base.

If Mrs. Bentley declines to run for governor, the outlook is for a less contentious primary, but -- in the eyes of many Republicans -- a less competitive statewide ticket.

Mrs. Sauerbrey, said one GOP figure, may be "too doctrinaire, too rock-ribbed in her conservatism" to appeal to the state's generally centrist voters.

Mr. Shepard, a retired diplomat, took 40 percent of the vote against Gov. William Donald Schaefer, but he continues to be viewed as a long shot.

Mrs. Bentley is not the only high-profile Republican who has party pros muttering to themselves. Robert R. Neall, the Anne Arundel County executive, was widely expected to enter the gubernatorial race. Instead, on the eve of the party's fall convention last month, he announced that he was retiring from politics, citing personal reasons. Publicly, his fellow Republicans said they understood. Privately, some said they felt betrayed.

Republicans have reason to be wary. History is on the side of those who fear that the GOP is destined to shoot itself in the foot despite favorable shifts in voter registration and the most professional party operation in recent memory.

The last Republican elected governor was Spiro T. Agnew in 1966. Since then, the party has fielded some respectable gubernatorial candidates, but no powerhouses.

The recent past has not been encouraging.

Mr. Shepard in 1990 named his wife, Lois, as his running mate, flabbergasting opponents and supporters alike. Four years earlier, party leaders united behind former Democrat J. Hugh Nichols, the Howard County executive, but he decided not to run.

Sound familiar? That left only Del. Thomas J. Mooney, affablbackbencher and another ex-Democrat, to take on Mr. Schaefer. Mr. Mooney suffered the worst defeat in the history of Maryland gubernatorial elections, 82 percent to 18 percent.

Concern about the the top of the ticket has led some Republicans to urge former federal prosecutor Richard D. Bennett, who has mounted an energetic campaign for state attorney general, to consider running for governor. He came under especially heavy pressure in the wake of Mr. Neall's announcement.

Mr. Bennett's response has been to insist that he is "completely focused" on the attorney general's race. He has not, however, unequivocally ruled out raising his sights.

DiGenova a prospect? Time will tell

Another ex-prosecutor figures in the 1994 calculations of some GOP leaders. Joseph diGenova, one-time senatorial aide to Charles McC. Mathias Jr. and later U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, is again being talked about as a possible candidate for the U.S. Senate or lieutenant governor.

Mr. diGenova, who lives in Montgomery County, won't talk about politics right now because of the sensitivity of his current activities.

He was named by a special three-judge panel last December to investigate allegations surrounding the search by Bush administration officials of then-candidate Bill Clinton's passport files. His champions are hoping he'll wrap up the probe soon and join the fray.

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