"What's happened to Mickey?'' is the most-asked question of this election. The apparent answer: Lt. Gov. Mickey Steinberg is publicly imploding.
It's not pretty to watch. Here's a politician who knows state government better than anyone else in the race. Twenty years in the state Senate. Finance Committee chairman. Senate president. Eight years as lieutenant governor. Architect of the Peabody bailout. Higher-education reform. Savings and loan bailout. A master of the legislative process.
But he may never get to show his stuff as governor. The way he's unraveling, he may not make it past next Friday's withdrawal deadline.
His campaign coffers remain plentiful. The problem is that everything he does falls apart. Take the latest instances of ineptitude:
* Picking a running mate.
He's had lots of time to get this one right. Four years, in fact. And still, he blew it.
In the past month, names such as Clarence Blount, Tom McMillen and Eleanor Carey surfaced. Coalitions with American Joe Miedusiewski and Mary Boergers were discussed. Still no decision. Last week, Mr. McMillen, the ex-basketball star and ex-congressman, was asked to dance with Mickey. Then it came out that he wasn't exactly living in Maryland any more. Tall Tom fouled out.
Next up, Tom O'Reilly, the erratic but likable lawyer/senator turned Workmen's Compensation Commission judge. He sealed a deal with Mr. Steinberg over the Fourth of July weekend. But just hours before the filing deadline, he was talked out of it by political friends concerned about Mr. O'Reilly retaining his judgeship while running for office.
In desperation, Mr. Steinberg turned to a loyal friend from his Senate days who volunteered his services and had been rejected earlier, Jim Simpson of Charles County. He was retiring from the Senate anyway, so what the heck?
The much-ballyhooed press conference resembled a guessing contest, as Mr. Steinberg showed up with both Mr. Simpson and Mr. O'Reilly at his side. He spent much of his time explain why he was not running with Tom O'Reilly.
''My God, it's Amateur Hour, Amateur Hour!'' said one longtime political observer.
* Organizing his campaign.
From the start, this has been an Achilles heal. Disorganization is more like it.
Mr. Steinberg prolonged his running-mate decision so long last Tuesday that he blew a chance to appear on the first televised gubernatorial debate. A major faux pas.
To add insult to injury, Mr. Steinberg's political director then walked into state election board headquarters in Annapolis and filed to run hisown campaign for a Senate seat on the Eastern Shore.
Two days later, his third campaign director quit.
One day after that, his press secretary quit. And the political director, whose assistant was then fired.
What a mess.
Political pros and friends of the lieutenant governor are at a loss to explain it all. But clearly, this is one candidate who has no inkling of how to run a statewide campaign.
Eight years ago, William Donald Schaefer's savvy operatives handled everything for the Schaefer-Steinberg team. Ditto four years ago. Mr. Steinberg never had to lift a finger.
In his political career, Mr. Steinberg has been a problem solver. Give him a difficult issue and he'll find a way to resolve it, a way to build a consensus. As lieutenant governor he initially did the same thing for Mr. Schaefer. Since their falling-out four years ago, he's had no role in government. He's been frozen out.
That should have given him all the time in the world to build a campaign apparatus, line up alliances and solidify his status as the Democratic front runner. But it takes more than a problem solver to run for governor. It takes organizational skills. And a talent search to piece together a knowledgeable campaign staff. And the discipline to hone your message to the point where it is succinct and on-target with voters. Plus the know-how to deliver that message effectively.
Yet even with these flubs, it's not impossible for Mickey Steinberg to pull it all together. Remember the Harry Hughes miracle of 1978? When he came out of nowhere in the final weeks of the campaign? It is possible. Parris Glendening, the clear leader, remains unknown and mistrusted in the key Baltimore region. He is vulnerable to attacks as a tax-and-spend Democratic liberal out of sync with voters. And Mr. Steinberg is still the only viable option with a realistic chance.
But the Prince George's County Executive is a quick study who could start to move his rhetoric toward the political center, moderating his expensive campaign commitments to special-interest groups and preaching instead a more cautious, downsizing-the-government message.
Then again, Parris Glendening might not have to change anything if Mickey Steinberg continues to self-destruct. In fact, the Prince George's County Executive might be able to spend his summer in Ocean City and still win in September. Mr. Steinberg poses no real threat until the lieutenant governor starts delivering a clear, concise message that rings true with voters.
Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.