Pass the hat and dish out the dirt

May 26, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

NEITHER the Democrats nor the Republicans have a franchise on this year's campaign nastiness. There's enough to go around. For the first time in decades, the usually mannerly Republicans are behaving like Mr. Dooley's brawling Democrats.

Consider the mud-slinging response of Rep. Helen Delich Bentley to fellow Republican Del. Ellen Sauerbrey's battering-ram attacks on her record in Congress. And read one of Lt. Gov. Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg's fax attacks on his Democratic opponent, Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening.

More to the point, listen to Jim Moorehead's catchy "Louis, Louis, Louis" commercials attacking the redoubtable Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein -- inaccuracies and misstatements notwithstanding. And hear that steel magnolia, Ruthann Aron, belittle her Republican opponent for the U.S. Senate, William E. Brock 3rd, over his peregrine candidacy.

So it is fair to ask just what, for crying out loud, is going on. Well, for one thing consultants are usually one step ahead of candidates, and the latest manifestation of the mediameisters is the "attack" commercial. Not negative, mind you, but attack, as in expose and define the opposition before it can define itself. Thus, the early burst of commercials by Ms. Aron mimicking Mr. Brock's political ambiguity, and thus Mr. Moorehead's filleting of Mr. Goldstein's 36 years as comptroller.

Add to the media mix the new cyberspace technology such as E-mail and the ubiquitous fax machine -- all designed to further fracture the electorate and bypass the mainstream media.

On Election Day, voters just might see poll workers equipped with lap-top computers and cellular phones doing exit polling and feeding the results to a headquarters mainframe. In this way, campaign managers can move workers and direct phone banks to areas where their candidate's vote is coming up short.

None of this technology was even a concept in 1966, the last splintered election that gave us Maryland's ambassador to the wonderful world of money, Spiro T. Agnew. But if history repeats itself, the same freakish results could reappear this year.

In 1966, there were four Democrats running for governor -- Thomas B. Finan, Carlton R. Sickles, Clarence W. Miles and George P. Mahoney. As every political hobbiest knows, Mr. Mahoney won the Democratic primary by a tad over 1,900 votes on the one-note campaign slogan, "Your home is your castle."

Democrats, including many ranking party officials, abandoned their nominee as if he were wearing a leper's bell, thus setting up a hellsapoppin' performance at the polls for the Republican candidate, Mr. Agnew.

Fast forward to 1994. The principal Democrats, Mr. Steinberg and Mr. Glendening, are behaving like two dogs circling and sniffing, trying to decide whether to make love or war. They are further separated by the regional duel between Baltimore and the Washington suburbs.

Mr. Glendening has put together a string of high-visibility endorsements, while Mr. Steinberg has pockets of support throughout the state even though his campaign is still, for the most part, parked and idling.

In the Republican column, Ms. Bentley and Ms. Sauerbrey both reside in Baltimore County, while William Shepard lives in Montgomery. Ms. Bentley has the benefit of broad support among Democrats as well as Republican party activists.

In Montgomery County, for example, three prominent Republicans are actively campaigning on Ms. Bentley's behalf -- Rep. Constance Morella, former Sen. Charles McC. Mathias and former Rep. Gilbert Gude.

But Ms. Bentley has also managed to anger environmentalists with her pro-business, anti-environment positions, and she's ticked off gun-control advocates by voting against legislation to ban assault weapons.

Ms. Sauerbrey claims support among the anti-tax, cut-the-budget crowd that she works with as House minority leader in Annapolis. And Mr. Shepard is running again by dint of having won 40 percent of the vote against Gov. William Donald Schaefer in 1990.

The next governor may not be the candidate with the best platform or the most endorsements but the one best able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again in the brief month between the Sept. 13 primary and the general election Nov. 1.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes from Owings Mills on Maryland politics.

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