Sarbanes hears sour notes in victory overture


February 16, 1994|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Sun Staff Writer

ELKTON -- If incumbency is a two-edged sword, both edges were evident here Monday night as Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes conducted the first of a half-dozen town "meetings" he is holding over the congressional recess that ends next Tuesday.

He used the perks of office, advertising the meeting in advance by mailing 25,527 postcards to Cecil countians at a cost to the taxpayers of $3,826.25. He brought three Senate aides to the event and boxes of literature to distribute, including a 46-page book, "Senator Sarbanes Welcomes You to Washington," that was produced by the Senate sergeant at arms.

But the other edge of the sword was sharp. Though the dominant theme was health care, the two-hour session amounted to a verbal assault -- not so much on Mr. Sarbanes and his record, but on Washington and incumbents in general. Names like Packwood, Rostenkowski and Wright were flung at him. Words like PACs and lobbyists. Comments like, "How can Congress run an insurance plan -- it can't even run a post office."

When Mr. Sarbanes said he was grateful to Marylanders for sending him to the Senate, he heard the applause of a lone person. When Eleanor Borland, a retired physician, said "government has never done anything well," he heard the applause of dozens. When he tried to deflect the claim that the Clinton health plan would impose a tax, he heard derisive laughter.

But there were upbeat remarks, too, among the 100 people present, and, says Mr. Sarbanes, positive comments after the meeting.

The fact that he is running for re-election was not mentioned. But the session offered a look at a sour voter mood that has Republicans believing they can unseat some incumbents this year.

Mr. Sarbanes' swing this week through eight counties -- which includes numerous private meetings and visits with the media -- comes on the heels of a new poll that the GOP is citing as fresh evidence of his vulnerability.

The survey of 817 registered voters was taken between Jan. 31 and Feb. 2 by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc., a nonpartisan polling firm. It found 34 percent of Marylanders would re-elect Mr. Sarbanes, while 24 percent would replace him and 37 percent would consider another candidate. The poll's margin of error was 3.5 percentage points.

The poll gave him a job-approval rating of 43 percent, a figure considered dangerously low for an incumbent seeking re-election. By comparison, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski had an approval rating of 63 percent and President Clinton had 51 percent.

But, in what Mr. Sarbanes called "pretty good" figures, the poll showed him -- matched individually against four GOP challengers -- winning by at least 21 points. It showed him beating former Tennessee Sen. William E. Brock of Annapolis, 43 percent to 22 percent; State Del. C. Ronald Franks of Grasonville, 42-20; Ruthann Aron of Potomac, 42-19; and former Cumberland Mayor Frank Nethken, 45-16.

The new poll indicated that Mr. Sarbanes has not improved his standing in the last six months. His job approval rating was a few points lower than it was in a Mason-Dixon poll taken last summer. And, at that time, he got 48 percent of the vote in head-to-head match-ups against a different set of candidates. "We've always outrun these polls -- by very substantial margins," Mr. Sarbanes says.

Says Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon: "Sarbanes is vulnerable, but the Republicans are going to have to come up with a candidate who is able to capitalize on that vulnerability" by running as an outsider.

Mr. Franks formally announced his candidacy last month.

Mr. Brock, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and Reagan administration official, is slated to make his formal announcement on March 7.

Ms. Aron was scheduled to make hers yesterday but last week postponed it until March 15, citing bad weather.

She has begun accusing Mr. Sarbanes of flip-flopping and voting against tough crime bills.

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