Don't Count the Candidates Till the Door Shuts

June 19, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Lawrence Peter ''Yogi'' Berra, that sage social philosopher, once summed up a familiar situation this way, ''It was deja vu all over again.''

In just two weeks, Marylanders might witness the sort of occurrence the inimitable Yogi attempted to describe.

Here's the picture: It's nearing the 9 p.m. filing deadline in Annapolis for this year's primary elections. One major candidate for governor has yet to sign up.

Action: ''In a dramatic last-minute scenario, Helen Delich Bentley . . . changed her mind about running in the Republican . . . primary after she had started to file formally for the race last night.''

It happened 20 years ago. Could it happen again come July 5?

The Sun headline on July 2, 1974, read, ''Mrs. Bentley out of GOP Senate race at last minute.''

The story, which I wrote while a staff reporter, went on to detail the bizarre scene:

''Mrs. Bentley rushed into the state elections board as the doors were being closed for a second and last time at the 9 p.m. deadline.

''Shaking as she started to fill out the forms, Mrs. Bentley was taken into a closed lounge area where she discussed the matter with political advisers.

''After 15 minutes, Willard A. Morris, the administrator of the elections board, conferred with George A. Nilson, an assistant attorney general, about Mrs. Bentley's status as a candidate.

''Mr. Morris knocked on the door and said: 'Mrs. Bentley, the attorney general says you've got to come out now.'

''Mr. Morris and Mr. Nilson then entered the room briefly and then left.

''Moments later, Mrs. Bentley came out and in a firm but soft voice told the waiting reporters, 'I told you all I would make a last-minute decision. I'm not going to file.' ''

At the time, Helen Bentley headed the Federal Maritime Commission and was anxious to take on incumbent GOP Sen. zTC Charles McC. Mathias, who wasn't conservative enough for Mrs. Bentley and the Nixon administration. But Ross Pierpont beat her to the punch.

At 6 o'clock that evening, the Baltimore physician, a perennial candidate, had filed in the GOP Senate race. This was enough to spook Mrs. Bentley. She said the two of them would ''split the conservative vote . . . it would have been an almost impossible situation.''

Fast-forward to 1994.

Mrs. Bentley now wants to be governor of Maryland. But her fund-raising efforts have been less than sensational. She won't have nearly as much money to run her campaign as she had planned.

She was so worried by developments that she called a 5 p.m. meeting of her campaign staff on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend and kept them there past 11 o'clock.

She doesn't appear to be the confident, hard-charging candidate voters have seen in past congressional races. Her grasp of the issues seems murky. Her handlers are trying to keep her away from the press. She has ducked 25 of the 30 issues forums held so far.

This can be viewed two ways.

* She's running scared.

Mrs. Bentley is a chronic worrier. She doesn't hesitate to call campaign officials or advisers at 3 or 4 in the morning to talk about some minor detail. She's being worn ragged handling her congressional duties on top of running for governor. Her lack of fund-raising success -- she has said it would cost $3 million to get elected governor -- is a matter of alarm.

Maybe it's not worth it, after all. Being governor sounded like a good idea last winter, but harsh reality is setting in. The issues are unfamiliar to someone whose political life has been spent in Washington, not Annapolis. The few times she has opened her mouth, she has made a mess of things (gun control, the ''buying'' of her vote on NAFTA).

The public spotlight is pretty intense for wannabe governors.

Besides, why give up a sure thing? She could switch races, run for re-election in the Second Congressional District and win in a walk. With the huge turnover expected in Congress, her seniority could rise by a whopping 100 slots!

As the filing deadline approaches, she could well change her mind. Deja vu all over again.

* She's acting like any other front-runner.

Mrs. Bentley's poll numbers remain far ahead of Del. Ellen Sauerbrey and William Shepard. Why give them a chance to catch up by recognizing the existence of a real race? And why take chances by exposing yourself to the press when you are prone to say things you later regret? Better to lie low, avoid reporters and candidate debates and act as though there's no primary to worry about.

Given her high name recognition, she can rely on a heavy dose of TV and radio advertising, carefully packaged press statements and safe ''photo ops'' of the candidate pressing the flesh in Ocean City, Gaithersburg and Cape St. Claire. Serious campaigning can wait until after the primary.

The Sauerbrey and Shepard camps would like to believe the first scenario is accurate, that Mrs. Bentley in the end will recognize how much she risks by running for governor. Her handlers, though, are intent on conducting a gubernatorial campaign. They're the ones crafting the front-runner strategy.

Will Helen Bentley file for governor? She still tends to agonize over decisions until the last minute. Just as she did in 1974.

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

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