The Guy Who Ran Before

March 23, 1994|By BRUCE L. BORTZ

Republican Bill Shepard did his party a favor in 1990. He ran. Full-tilt, and all by himself, for a governor's seat no Republican thought attainable. Deprived of party money and party organizational help, he achieved a respectable, albeit mostly anti-Schaefer, 40 percent of the vote.

After that, he never stopped campaigning. He seeks now to persuade Republican voters, most of whom don't recall his name, that the party's last nominee deserves the chance to ''finish the job'' begun four years ago.

Mr. Shepard is better organized than he was in 1990, has much more money, and should be able to attract a running-mate who at least won't damage his credibility. (Last time, when everyone demurred, he was left to run with his wife.) And if, between now and Sept. 13, he raises another $60,000 in small contributions and can eke out a primary win, he's guaranteed almost $1 million in public money for the general election -- plenty of money for a serious television campaign.

But getting past September will be no easy matter. Sensing their party's best chance in a generation to win the Governor's Mansion, two other major candidates -- House Minority Leader Ellen Sauerbrey and Congresswoman Helen Bentley -- have entered the race.

Mr. Shepard is a strong, confident, assertive character, with a steel-trap memory, an academic bent, a voracious appetite for the written word and a sense of humor. He's a Harvard-trained, non-practicing lawyer, and his strong communication skills make him a sharp and effective debater.

His training and experience as a diplomat may prove handy if he is elected. Though Republicans probably will gain in the 1995 General Assembly, they will remain a minority, and a GOP governor could have a tough time developing a working relationship with a Democratic legislature. Mr. Shepard has appeared before traditional Democratic constituencies, such as NTC public-employee unions and women's groups -- and has won grudging respect.

Mr. Shepard claims as a model Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, another fiscal conservative and social progressive to whom Marylanders, regardless of political stripe, once warmed. There are a few parallels. McKeldin championed business-like efficiency for government. Mr. Shepard calls for a thorough, department-by-department budget analysis to clarify government priorities and streamline government services.

McKeldin bravely espoused greater inclusion for blacks, who warmly and strongly supported him. Mr. Shepard talks courageously about the special needs of Baltimore City, telling listeners that making the city more self-sufficient economically will, in the end, benefit everyone in the state. He refuses to pit the city against the suburbs (where almost all Republican voters are). An election won on that basis, he says, brings an office not worth holding.

But McKeldin was an established politician who had served as mayor of Baltimore before winning the governorship in 1950. Mr. Shepard has never won an elective office.

Can Mr. Shepard get the 38 percent of the Republican vote he thinks is needed to win? Three-way races are always hard to handicap, but the answer is a very qualified ''maybe.'' He sees his base as the Washington suburbs, where a third of the primary votes will be cast, and where he's based. The Eastern Shore and Western Maryland (17 percent and 8 percent of the vote respectively) are potential sources for a victory margin.

But for him to win, the clear front-runner, Mrs. Bentley, must stumble, and Mrs. Sauerbrey, another Baltimore Countian, must take from Mrs. Bentley a sizable portion of the Baltimore area, where 44 percent of the primary voters come.

Mr. Shepard hopes to drive up Mrs. Bentley's negatives by keeping alive the perception, somewhat distorted, that Mrs. Bentley and Mr. Schaefer are soul-mates who share major stylistic flaws: non-consultation with interested parties and misplaced budget priorities. But Mrs. Bentley can probably withstand the guilt-by-association attacks by being more careful with her Schaefer ties, and by selecting a good running-mate from Montgomery County. One-fifth of all GOP primary voters are from there.

If Mrs. Bentley fails to falter over the next two months, and Mrs. Sauerbrey doesn't gain in the polls, Mr. Shepard may have to go to Plan B: talk seriously with Mrs. Sauerbrey about running with him. The two like each other and would make a formidable ticket.

Bruce L. Bortz edits The Maryland Report and The Maryland Procurement Report newsletters.

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