The Republican search for a "big name" candidate to oppose Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes in next year's election is very likely to settle on William E. Brock III, an Annapolis resident who was special trade representative and secretary of Labor in the Reagan cabinet, GOP national chairman during the difficult post-Watergate years and a congressman and senator from Tennessee in the 1960s and 1970s.
If he were to defeat Mr. Sarbanes, a long-shot prospect, Mr. Brock would be the first senator to represent two states since the direct election of senators began. It would be a distinction not without its negatives, since one of Mr. Brock's first tasks would be to put predictable "carpetbagger" charges to rest.
Actually he has been a resident of this state for about 10 years, first in Montgomery County and then in Anne Arundel, and before that his service in Congress drew him to a region he has never left.
It would be fair to say that if he seeks and wins the GOP nomination for senator, Mr. Brock would be the most substantial opponent Mr. Sarbanes has faced since he defeated incumbent Republican Sen. J. Glenn Beall in 1976. Both intellectually and through experience, Mr. Brock would be in a position to debate Mr. Sarbanes on trade policy, where they differ sharply, and on other key national issues. It could be an interesting contest.
Where Mr. Brock would have to prove his credentials is on state matters, an area Mr. Sarbanes knows well even though many Marylanders are unhappy with his lack of zeal on constituency service. There is no doubt in our mind that Mr. Brock is better qualified to be senator than to be governor, an office he eyed and then abandoned.
Mr. Brock's political career has seen him develop from a highly conservative Tennessee legislator into a moderate Republican who was described in these columns in 1987 as "the social conscience of the Reagan cabinet." Once an opponent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he established rapport with the NAACP during his tenure as Labor secretary and backed affirmative action, parental leave, worker retraining and other progressive measures.
Mr. Brock's most recent activity has been in the private sector, where he heads a group that lobbied heavily for passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a proposal opposed by Mr. Sarbanes in keeping with his ties to organized labor.
Marylanders deserve a real Senate race in which Mr. Sarbanes will be pressed to defend his record -- something that has not happened during the past 18 years. It is, however, up to the Republicans to make that challenge, a task on which they have consistently fallen short -- at least till now.