Ellen and Helen Show spices up GOP primary CAMPAIGN 1994

THE POLITICAL GAME

May 25, 1994|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Sun Staff Writer

So, imagine you're a candidate for governor and trailing the front-runner in the polls by a 4-to-1 margin. You're no match for your opponent's fund-raising ability. News coverage of your campaign -- when it appears -- seems to run with the truss ads.

You've got to get your message out, but what's a candidate to do?

Go after the front-runner's record. Obviously.

Welcome to The Ellen and Helen Show.

Maryland House Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey is hoping that attacks on Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley's voting record will pay off in her effort to keep GOP hard-liners in her camp and lure other support for her bid to become the Republican nominee.

Delegate Sauerbrey has held up a handful of Mrs. Bentley's votes and ratings by special interest groups as examples that the 2nd District congresswoman is a "tax-and-spend" candidate who "can't be trusted to cut the size and cost of government."

The charge that Mrs. Bentley votes against "the Republican agenda" -- and the antics surrounding the most recent event, where Mrs. Sauerbrey laid out specifics to back it up -- has added a little flavor to the usually bland GOP primary and sparked some alarm among party regulars.

"I think this mudslinging is definitely going to come back and haunt the party, and I just wish they'd quit it," said the third Republican candidate, William S. Shepard, a retired foreign service officer and the 1990 GOP standard-bearer.

Mrs. Sauerbrey defends her remarks, saying that they were aimed at Mrs. Bentley's record -- which she believes is fair game -- and not at the congresswoman personally.

Besides, Ellen says, Helen started it.

The cantankerous congresswoman apparently told a local television station some months ago that Mrs. Sauerbrey -- a Baltimore County legislator since 1979 -- has never been able to get a bill out of the Maryland General Assembly.

Not nice. Also not true.

And so, the counterblows:

First, Mrs. Sauerbrey fired a fusillade during the state Republican convention May 14. A fuming Mrs. Bentley -- not known for keeping her tongue -- waved off a reporter's questions while her campaign consultant branded the charges "lies and distortions."

Next, Mrs. Sauerbrey scheduled a news conference outside Mrs. Bentley's congressional district offices in Towson last week, claiming a need to defend her honor. After being chased off the property, Mrs. Sauerbrey and her campaign staff wound up in a field across the street.

As Mrs. Sauerbrey began her spiel, Bentley campaign workers moved through the crowd with "mudslinging kits" -- toy beach pails complete with mud, water, shovel and instructions.

To her credit, Mrs. Bentley reportedly was talked out of her initial reaction to the second barrage of charges -- which was to take a sledgehammer to Mrs. Sauerbrey, as she did to a Toshiba radio on the steps of the Capitol in 1987 to protest that company's sale of technology to the former Soviet Union.

Well, that report may be a bit exaggerated. But Mrs. Bentley has been uncharacteristically silent -- a campaign strategy that may serve her better than yielding to the temptation of shooting back directly at Mrs. Sauerbrey.

Mrs. Sauerbrey's reporting of the votes is accurate, but the core of her claims about Mrs. Bentley does not ring true with party leaders and congressional vote watchers.

"She certainly is no right-wing ideologue; on other hand, anyone who called her a liberal would have a screw loose," said Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional expert with the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

"To suggest that she is not a good Republican, in terms of her general philosophy, given the general philosophy of the Republican Party, is not an accurate charge," Mr. Ornstein said.

One Maryland GOP officeholder assessed Mrs. Bentley's votes by saying, "I don't think her record lends itself to any one ideological label, where Ellen runs on and stands for traditional Republican conservatism on every issue."

Though Mrs. Bentley's staff portrayed their part in the beach-pail stunt as "a joke," it certainly did not feel that way to those gathered for the cozy event.

"We were treating the event with the dignity it deserved," said Michael E. Marr Jr., Mrs. Bentley's campaign scheduler.

The brewing bitterness continues to concern party officials, who echo Mr. Shepard's fear that the attacks could hurt the party, which is unaccustomed to hotly contested primaries.

Joyce L. Terhes, the state Republican Party chairwoman, says she believes contested primaries are healthy, but these days the governor's race leaves her feeling like "the proverbial schoolteacher."

"I'm just reminding them that I really don't like for them to have this kind of campaign," Ms. Terhes said. "It's going to make it very difficult for me to be able to pull everybody together after the primary if it keeps this intense and gets more intense between now and then."

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