Governor's race: Early leader careening back in pack CAMPAIGN 1994 -- THE RACE FOR GOVERNOR

July 10, 1994|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

The second act curtain has gone up on the gubernatorial election year saga to reveal a breathtaking sight -- Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, the one-time Democratic front-runner, alone the stage, reeling, abandoned by friends and supporters, his campaign in near meltdown.

The performance of Mr. Steinberg over the past several months, a period during which he may well have turned likely victory into humiliating defeat, provided the high point of act one.

Mr. Steinberg continues to provide the dramatic tension. A victim of self-inflicted wounds, he has affirmed his intention to stay in the race despite a running-mate fiasco that opened him to ridicule and the subsequent desertion of his latest crew of

campaign handlers.

He will need to move quickly to correct his problems. With the passing last week of the deadline for candidates to enter the race, the campaign has now begun in earnest, with two months to go before the Sept. 13 party primaries.

On the Democratic side, Parris N. Glendening, the Prince George's County executive, has supplanted Mr. Steinberg as the front-runner. The other leading candidates are two veteran state senators -- Mary H. Boergers of Montgomery County and Baltimore's American Joe Miedusiewski.

U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley leads the Republican field by a wide margin over Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the Maryland House minority leader, and retired foreign service officer William S. Shepard, the party's standard bearer in 1990.

For the moment, Mr. Steinberg commands the stage as he tries to survive a week in which the flaws of the previous months seemed to achieve critical mass. He found himself within hours of Tuesday's 9 p.m. filing deadline without the lieutenant governor running mate required by law. He scrambled under the wire by tapping state Sen. James C. Simpson of Charles County.

By week's end, his campaign manager, press secretary and political director had resigned. In arms-control jargon, Mr. Steinberg's campaign had suffered decapitation, the destruction of the leadership.

Complaints against him boil down to an inability to delegate authority, a penchant for micromanagement and a failure to recognize that old-style political schmoozing has been replaced by modern campaign techniques.

Mr. Steinberg, whose net worth exceeds $1 million, says he will have a new team in place in a few days and vowed to use his own and his family's money if that's what it takes to rejuvenate his campaign. Recent Maryland political history suggests anything is possible.

In 1978, the under-funded Harry R. Hughes ran against three Democrats with a staff of two or three. In what became the quote of the campaign, the late state Sen. Harry J. McGuirk called Mr. Hughes "a lost ball in tall grass." Mr. Hughes won.

Mr. Steinberg's problems aside, the race for both party nominations has begun to take shape, but there seems general agreement among political professionals that most voters have not begun to pay close attention and that commitment to candidates is not yet strong.

Mr. Steinberg, 60, is the only candidate to hold statewide office, which accounts in part for what has become the cliche of this campaign, that the race was his to lose.

A lawyer from Baltimore County, he has served eight years as lieutenant governor under William Donald Schaefer, though the two had a bitter falling out three years ago when Mr. Steinberg publicly opposed a major tax package proposed by the chief executive. Before that, he served four years as president of the Maryland Senate, a body to which he was first elected in 1966. During his legislative career, he was known as an outstanding legislative tactician, playing a similar role for Mr. Schaefer until their split.

In January, a poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Political Media Research showed Mr. Steinberg leading Mr. Glendening 28 percent to 19 percent. By June, Mr. Glendening had surged into the lead, 31 percent to 21 percent.

Glendening campaign manager Emily Smith said she expects Mr. Steinberg to try to recoup with a barrage of negative television advertising. Although he has expressed distaste for such commercials, Ms. Smith may have reason for concern.

A few months ago, Joe Trippi, Mr. Steinberg's media strategist, was quoted in Regardies magazine as saying that if Mr. Glendening runs as a reformer, "we'll paint 'insider' on a life preserver, wrap it around his neck and throw him in the bay."

Mr. Glendening, 52, is the only candidate in the race to hold a major executive post. Once a full-time professor at the University of Maryland at College Park, he has served as county executive for 12 years.

As of last fall, Mr. Glendening had raised over $1.5 million in his quest for the $3.5 million he has budgeted for the primary. He has what is widely viewed as the most professional campaign organization on the Democratic side.

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