The Campaign Centrifuge Brings Out the Cream

May 22, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

It's beginning to look like two-candidate races for governor in both party primaries this year. Slowly but surely the candidates are dropping out or the cream is rising to the surface. That could greatly simplify the job for voters this summer.

In the Republican race, Rep. Helen Bentley remains the heavy favorite. She's popular with the rank and file, she has a loyal base of supporters in the 2nd Congressional District and she remains the titular head of the state GOP. But suddenly she finds herself on the defensive.

The congresswoman has once again been trying to explain a gun-control vote, this time in opposition to banning assault weapons. Her indecision and her effort to straddle the issue certainly didn't enhance her gubernatorial image.

Now she has to fend off the aggressive thrusts of Del. Ellen Sauerbrey of northern Baltimore County. Mrs. Sauerbrey may be a died-in-the-wool Reaganite when it comes to economics, but she wasted little time discarding Ronald Reagan's strong admonition to all Republican candidates to obey the ''11th Commandment'' -- speak no ill of a fellow Republican.

Twice last week, she castigated Mrs. Bentley for not voting in favor of radical budget cuts proposed by hard-line Republican conservatives, of not voting to trim congressional mailing privileges and of being too cozy with organized labor. She even staged an eye-catching press conference across the street from Bentley headquarters.

Sure enough, Mrs. Bentley took the bait. Her staff tried to belittle the Sauerbrey charges by hand-delivering a ''mudslinging kit'' to the candidate during her press conference. All that did was assure Mrs. Sauerbrey of heightened media coverage and breathe new life into the delegate's charges.

That's exactly what the Sauerbrey camp wanted. By going on the offensive, Mrs. Sauerbrey is setting the agenda for this Republican campaign. It's the only way she can overcome Mrs. Bentley's big lead in the polls and begin to plant doubts about Mrs. Bentley's loyalty to the conservative Republican cause.

A third candidate, William S. Shepard remains in the race, but he is fast becoming an afterthought. It's the Sauerbrey attacks on Mrs. Bentley -- and Mrs. Bentley's responses -- that are now the focus of attention.

Meanwhile, the Democratic primary is turning into a catch-the-leader affair.

The much-anticipated entry of millionaire Stewart Bainum Jr. imploded, with the candidate developing a bad case of stage fright just as the campaign curtain was about to rise. Too bad. Mr. Bainum planned an early media blitz that would have focused on issues, not on the horse-race aspect of this election.

Parris Glendening, the academic turned Prince George's county executive, continues to gain momentum, picking up endorsements with broad promises to various interest groups.

The Glendening campaign booklet released last week, ''A Vision for Maryland's Future'' is a grab-bag of good-sounding ideas sure to please just about everyone. The price of this vision isn't mentioned, though. It clearly would cost far more than this state -- facing a billion-dollar deficit in the next four years -- can afford. So far, no one seems to have noticed.

Most Democratic eyes will be on tomorrow night's big fund-raiser in Baltimore for House Speaker Casper R. Taylor of Cumberland. Ostensibly this event is being held to give Mr. Taylor a vast kitty so he can dole out funds to loyal House colleagues this election year.

But some of Mr. Taylor's backers -- egged on by Governor Schaefer -- want to use this $200-a-ticket event to propel their candidate into the race for governor. That would certainly change the dynamics and present a new obstacle for Mr. Glendening.

As it is, the main challenge to a Glendening victory comes from Lt. Gov. Mickey Steinberg. None of the other contenders has emerged as a top-tier candidate.

Mr. Steinberg could yet generate some campaign sparks if he ever brings focus to his chaotic efforts. He certainly knows the issues, he has a long record of achieving results in Annapolis and he feels passionately about many social issues.

So far, though, issues have taken a back seat in the Steinberg campaign to personality clashes and organizational problems. Meanwhile, the methodical Mr. Glendening is marching steadily forward.

There's plenty of time for Mr. Steinberg to recover lost ground. But it will take the kind of aggressiveness he has yet to display. Just as Mrs. Sauerbrey seized the initiative on the GOP side, so must Mr. Steinberg start to set the agenda on the Democratic side. Otherwise, it could be an increasingly lonely and frustrating summer for Maryland's lieutenant governor.

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

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