The Candidates Play Ninepins

May 08, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Nine -- count 'em -- candidates for governor sat before a big Chamber of Commerce crowd in Baltimore last week trying to peddle their wares via rapid-fire one-minute responses to questions. Two hours later, one thing was clear: they're all singing from the same hymn book, perhaps even the same page.

If George Wallace saw this contingent, he'd sneeringly suggest ''there's not a dime's worth of difference'' among them. That's an overstatement, but not by much. Their remarks were so similar on most issues that it raises questions about how the public will sort out the candidates before election day.

What do they stand for? Here's a composite:

It's time for a change in Annapolis. We've got to light a fire under Maryland's economic development efforts. We've got to become pro-business state. We've got to cut the fat and duplication. We've got to eliminate red tape. We've got to lower taxes that harm growth. We've got to produce jobs and a clean environment. We've got to boost education. We've got to champion new technologies and new ways of learning. We've got to put more resources into community colleges. We've got to put more criminals in jail.

Sure, their remarks were tailored to win approval from an ardently pro-business audience. And the specifics from each candidate diverge. But the themes were remarkably similar.

Few kind words were spoken about the Schaefer administration. And the name of William Donald Schaefer was barely mentioned. He's the voting public's favorite punching bag. So he's indirectly the gubernatorial candidates' favorite target, too.

The sharpest difference of the event occurred on a question concerning the state school board's threat to take over two Baltimore high schools. Two candidates, Parris Glendening and Mary Boergers, shamelessly kow-towed to the teachers' union position that such action is somehow un-American. The teachers' union is, after all, a powerful political force in a statewide election.

It took one of the lesser-knowns, American Joe Miedusiewski, to present a reality-check: He said ''reconstitution'' of a public school may be a ''four-letter word for teachers'' but the mere threat of a takeover is working miracles. Suddenly, both parents and alumni at the two schools are frantically putting together reform plans to ward off ''reconstitution.'' That was unheard of before. ''You have got to have a hammer,'' he noted.

At the moment, the clear front-runner on the Democratic side is Mr. Glendening, the polished Prince George's County executive. the only one with an established track record as a government manager, a fact he stresses constantly.

His methodical campaign strategy seems to be slowly coming together. The recent endorsement of Baltimore's Mayor Schmoke gives Mr. Glendening a solid advantage in two of this state's most crucial jurisdictions. But it hardly assures him the nomination. Not this early in the campaign.

For one thing, the expected entrance into the race of multi-millionaire nursing-home executive Steward Bainum Jr. could scramble everything. The selection of running mates could narrow the field and propel a new combined ticket into the lead. Most important of all, the state's so-called ''Tsongas Belt'' remains up for grabs.

Two years ago, when Paul Tsongas bashed Bill Clinton in the Maryland presidential primary, he did so by clobbering his foe in the Baltimore-Washington suburbs. That's where the great bulk of the uncommitted votes lie in this year's election, too.

As Mr. Clinton's Maryland campaign found out to its dismay, winning in the city and in Prince George's isn't enough if the ''Tsongas Belt'' turns against you. That's a lesson Mr. Glendening (who supported the Tsongas insurgency) needs to keep in mind.

Which candidate will emerge as the Paul Tsongas of this election?

Nearly all the Democrats sound surprisingly similar to Mr. Tsongas in their skeptical outlook toward state government and what needs to be done to turn the situation around. Even the Republicans echoed Tsongas-like themes. (Actually, they would claim Mr. Tsongas was re-stating traditional GOP stances.)

Given the similar positions most candidates are putting forward, the key to the primary could be found in the details. For once, voters may be forced to delve deeply into the top candidates' statements to discover that ''dime's worth of difference.'' It's true in the Republican race, where Rep. Helen Bentley still is the obvious leader, and it is true in the Democratic contest, too.

Even staging a debate is a chore when there are nine or ten candidates running.

Voters have their work cut out for them this summer. So do the gubernatorial hopefuls.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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