All Dressed up -- but Should He Go?

May 29, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Miracles do happen. The youthful and talented understudy, suddenly thrust into a Broadway show when the star breaks her leg, is a smash sensation. The little-known white-knight politician suddenly enters a crowded race for governor and surprises everyone by pulling a stunning upset.

Yes, such fairy-tale endings are possible. Just ask Shirley MacLaine or Harry Hughes. Each one beat the odds -- Ms. MacLaine getting her big break in ''The Pajama Game,'' and Mr. Hughes achieving the state's greatest political shocker in his 1978 race for governor.

Could history repeat? Could another Hughes-type candidate emerge in the next month and transform the 1994 gubernatorial election? Some people think House Speaker Casper R. Taylor is such a candidate.

He proved to be a breath of fresh air in his one session as House leader, someone with a statewide perspective and a talent for creativity and consensus-building. His progressive-conservative views might also strike a chord with an increasingly conservative electorate in Maryland. And he's from rural Western Maryland, which means he doesn't pose a threat to political interests from either the Baltimore region or suburban Washington.

Sounds too good to be true.

That's the way some of Mr. Taylor's fans, including Governor Schaefer, see the situation. They want Mr. Taylor to run for governor. His big fund-raiser last week confirmed his clout with special interests and politically attuned members of the House of Delegates. But holding a successful fund-raiser and running for governor are on two vastly different levels. One shouldn't be confused with the other. Among Mr. Taylor's biggest drawbacks:

* He's got meager name recognition outside of Cumberland and the State House. Being House speaker gives Mr. Taylor enormous powers in government, but that doesn't translate to popularity or public support in a statewide election.

Just ask Ben Cardin. In 1986, then-Speaker Cardin unofficially campaigned for governor. His efforts went nowhere. And he had a much broader base of support and financial backing than Mr. Taylor has this year.

* His anti-abortion stance poses big problems with women voters in a state overwhelmingly in favor of liberalizing abortion policies in Annapolis.

* His votes against gun restrictions hurt him with a public increasingly demanding gun-control measures to help restore safety on the streets.

* He can't campaign as a ''Mr. Clean'' the way Mr. Hughes did because Mr. Taylor has had close relationships with special interests during most of his years in Annapolis.

* He's not leading a crusade as Mr. Hughes was in 1978. At that time, the issue was corruption in government. There's no similar issue to latch onto. Mr. Taylor can't even claim to be a breath of fresh air, since he's been part of the inner circle in the State House for most of his 20 years as a delegate.

Still, it's not hard to imagine how a successful Taylor strategy could be constructed.

With the right running mate, he could be an appealing candidate who 1) stands above petty parochial squabbles from the Baltimore and Washington regions, 2) has a long history of being ardently pro-business and pro-economic development, 3) is sensitive to the demands of opposing groups, 4) knows how to get things done, and 5) can restore some balance and sense of serenity after eight tumultuous years of William Donald Schaefer.

There's even a viable vote-gathering strategy for a Taylor victory. As the lone conservative Democrat among the top three candidates, he captures the right wing of the party's voters; as a son of Western Maryland, he wins the hearts of rural voters; as House speaker, he gains the backing of key delegates and their vote-gathering efforts, and as a sane option for changing the top levels of government without sacrificing crucial experience and expertise, he is a perfect choice for disgruntled but uncertain suburban voters.

It all is possible, but not yet probable. That's why Mr. Taylor's heart says yes, but his head says no. Harry Hughes had nothing to lose when he made his audacious move: he'd already quit as state transportation secretary over a corruption issue. But Cas Taylor would have to relinquish his prized possession: the top job in the House of Delegates, something he has always wanted. It would be a big risk.

Besides, Mr. Taylor is only 59, which means this won't be his only chance to run for governor. He could spend the next four or eight years building his power base in the State House and developing a truly statewide presence and constituency. Then a campaign for governor might make more sense.

Politics is all about timing. Mr. Taylor's dilemma is figuring out whether the time to run for governor is now -- or later.

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

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