Steinberg tries new line, new look Campaign 1994 -- THE RACE FOR GOVERNOR

April 18, 1994|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

As tales of woe from his campaign for governor have accumulated in recent months, Melvin A. Steinberg, Maryland's amiable lieutenant governor, has found himself lapsing into parable, a modern-day political one.

There's this candidate, he tells the doubters. All day he's out campaigning, shaking hands, kissing babies -- old-time retail politics. He gets back to his hotel, snaps on the television. Some woman's on the screen. She's talking about him and their secret life together. If you're the guy, you've got no choice. You thank everybody, pack your bags, go home.

Except the guy didn't go home, says Mr. Steinberg. Instead, he hung in there.

"And today," he says, grinning impishly, barreling toward the punch line, "today they call him Mr. President."

His eyes flit left and right as he delivers the kicker, as if to say, "Does anybody see any parallels here between Bill Clinton, down but not out after the Gennifer Flowers episode, and, say, Mickey Steinberg?"

That is Mr. Steinberg's line of choice these days, that he is politically resilient, a sturdy distance runner capable of weathering the fits and starts of a campaign that for all its high-priced talent has at times seen him looking like a candidate for the glue factory rather than the apparent front-runner in the race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Troubles or not, he looks better these days, having dropped 25 pounds, transforming his characteristic jelly-bean torso into something within cannon range of slim.

"I don't want to win this on my sex appeal," Mr. Steinberg, 60, says with mock seriousness when complimented on his appearance. "I want to win this on my substance."

Substance is not the problem. In many respects he is the polar opposite of the Robert Redford character in the 1972 movie "The Candidate," in which Mr. Redford plays a content-free hunk elected to the U.S. Senate by going along with the advice of cynical, media-savvy political handlers.

"Marvin, what do we do now?" asks the new senator, his victory assured, in the film's last line.

Few who have followed Mr. Steinberg's career as a legislator, state Senate president and lieutenant governor doubt he would know what to do as governor.

Over the years he has built an enviable record of accomplishment, especially as Senate president and during the first term in his present job, before the bitter 1991 split with Gov. William Donald Schaefer over taxes that left Mr. Steinberg isolated and bereft of duties.

But his uneven campaign performance to date has raised questions among political observers, including some of his strongest supporters, about his ability to win the state's highest office.

Most noticeably, he failed to make good on his high-profile pledge to play a major role at the annual 90-day session of the Maryland General Assembly that concluded Monday.

Session viewed as forum

On Jan. 7, five days before legislators convened in Annapolis, Mr. Steinberg said in an interview that he intended to use the session as a forum to vigorously promote issues central to his campaign.

"I see this as a session of real opportunity to focus on the burning issues that we as a society have to address," he said. "I am prepared to speak out candidly on every issue involving public safety, education and economic development and to get them enacted as soon as possible."

Instead, he was largely irrelevant to the action, his presence at the State House marked by little more than his arrivals and departures en route to the second-floor office where he presides over a staff of three.

To the extent he surfaced in any noticeable way in Annapolis during the session, it was through his advocacy of a $2-a-pack cigarette tax, an initiative treated as election-year bombast by a skeptical General Assembly.

Mr. Steinberg's timing fed that skepticism.

On Monday, Jan. 10, Mr. Steinberg officially kicked off his campaign for governor, traveling to various parts of the state over a two-day period, laying out a platform in which smoking was never mentioned.

Two days later, on Jan. 12, news reports said Governor Schaefer planned to propose a 25-cents-a-pack cigarette tax increase in hopes of discouraging smoking, particularly by young people.

Calls for bigger increase

That same day, Mr. Steinberg, going the governor better by a factor of eight, called for his $2-a-pack increase -- even though it was clear that Mr. Schaefer's far more modest proposal was likely to fail, as it eventually did.

"I think the $2-a-pack cigarette thing was a no-brainer," said Sen. Julian L. Lapides, a Baltimore Democrat who is fond of Mr. Steinberg, but has not endorsed any of the Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls. "Realistically, it's absurd, even if it's the right thing to do."

Mr. Steinberg acknowledged that his proposal was triggered by news reports of the governor's initiative.

In making that admission, he portrayed it as skillfully exploiting a target of opportunity, a lucrative one that might save lives.

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