Bentley carries the most weight, but will she win the title?

THE POLITICAL GAME

February 23, 1994|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

On Helen Delich Bentley's night, the diminutive Baltimore County congresswoman looked every inch a contender.

"I'd never call Helen little," quipped novelist Tom Clancy, the emcee at her highly successful statewide fund-raiser last week. "Vertically challenged perhaps but not little."

Definitely not little. For the moment, at least, Mrs. Bentley appears to be the heavyweight in the race for the Republican nomination for governor.

In Maryland, that has traditionally been a distinction of stunning inconsequence in terms of general election results.

Since 1966, when Spiro T. Agnew capitalized on a fractured Democratic Party to win election as governor, the GOP nomination has transformed five men and one woman into trivia questions.

The answers, in order of appearance, are C. Stanley Blair, Louise Gore, J. Glenn Beall Jr., Robert A. Pascal, Thomas Mooney and William S. Shepard, the last named

looking for a rematch this year.

Bentley supporters, however, insist that the bad old days are over, a generation of double-digit defeats nothing more than sour reminders of a best forgotten past.

They may be right. For Maryland Republicans, outnumbered even today more than 2 to 1 despite a healthy infusion of new GOP voters in the past decade, Democrats have always been the key to victory.

The good news for Mrs. Bentley is that Democrats were out in force at her fund-raiser. And not just the lobbyists, whose profession often requires an awkward bipartisan straddle, but men and women whose money, connections and political clout over the years have powered fellow Democrats into the State House.

The gathering, estimated at 1,000, included members of the smart money crowd, men like developer Victor H. Frenkil and bakery magnate John Paterakis, the latter a registered Republican but a longtime supporter of Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Many of the Democrats and fellow traveling Republicans like Mr.

Paterakis were drawn in part by a recent independent poll that showed Mrs. Bentley outdistancing rivals from both parties.

At the very least, the poll per

suaded such men and women that Mrs. Bentley will be a major player in the slowly unfolding 1994 election-year saga.

The healthy turnout of Democrats also reflected another reality of the campaign: No one in the field of Democratic gubernatorial candidates, which now stands at five and counting, has electrified the voters.

What does it all mean?

At this point, nothing more than this: Mrs. Bentley, in the early dTC stages of the campaign, seems to be the strongest Republican candidate in years, in part because of her experience -- five terms in Congress -- and the failure so far of any of the Democrats to emerge as a strong front-runner.

In truth, she is not even guaranteed her party's nomination. Her two GOP rivals, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the minority leader of the House of Delegates, and Mr. Shepard, a retired foreign service officer, are running energetic campaigns.

Neither are ceding the field to Mrs. Bentley. They maintain that at this stage of the campaign, polls measure name identification, not voter commitment to candidates.

At a fund-raiser of her own last

week, Mrs. Sauerbrey -- who enjoys strong support from Republican House members -- boasted that she had put together a dynamic statewide organization. Mr. Shepard has made similar claims.

For Mrs. Bentley, the wild card in all of this is the Maryland Republican Party. It has come a long way since the days when it could caucus in a phone booth.

But even though it has grown and matured, it still has the potential to veer off into quirkiness. Its members -- particularly the old guard that has fought many good if losing battles -- do not like being dictated to. And they relish making fools of political reporters.

That's what happened in 1974. Larry Hogan Sr., a well-known Prince George's County congressman, was the choice that year of those who counted. On primary night, Louise Gore, a genteel former state senator from old Maryland Republican stock, knocked Mr. Hogan into the cheap seats. On general election night, the Democratic incumbent, Marvin Mandel, was re-elected with 63 percent of the vote.

Is there a lesson here?

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