A Confident Glendening Looks Past the Primary

July 24, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

He's the leader of the pack, the front-runner and likely winner in the September 13 Democratic primary. Parris Glendening has things going his way.

His No. 1 primary foe has run an embarrassingly inept campaign that has taken him from first to fourth place in the polls. Mr. Glendening leads his nearest rival by 22 points, and with four candidates in the race his lead looks safe.

And yet, Mr. Glendening still is viewed with suspicion by most voters outside the Washington suburbs. Additionally, the Prince George's county executive may be a household word in College Park and Hyattsville, but when people talk about Parris in Severna Park or Cockeysville they're referring to the city in France, not the gubernatorial candidate.

Political pros panned his selection of a running mate, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, because it moved Mr. Glendening sharply to the left -- at a time when the electorate has been moving steadily to the right. But no one in the Democratic race came up with an all-star running mate, either. What could have turned into a major misstep by Mr. Glendening may have no negative impact in September.

As for Mr. Glendening's $300 million worth of spending commitments to various special interests, it doesn't appear to have turned off primary voters. Marylanders so far are barely cognizant of this election campaign, which works to the county executive's advantage.

The precipitous plunge of Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg's challenge allows Mr. Glendening to start planning for the general election. The other two name candidates in the race, state Sens. American Joe Miedusiewski and Mary Boergers, remain regional contenders unable to mount a serious threat.

Mr. Glendening has impressed politicians with his disciplined, well organized campaign. He is meticulous in keeping lines of communication open to possible allies and delivering thank-you notes and follow-up phone calls to supporters.

The primary season has been devoted to cementing, in the public mind, ''the vision thing,'' as George Bush put it. Mr. Glendening has issued a comprehensive issues booklet. It has generated controversy for the spending commitments implicit in Glendening's vision for Maryland. But he can't make education funding ''our top priority'' without commiting a bundle of big bucks, and he can't clean up the Chesapeake Bay merely with good intentions.

Mr. Glendening wants to get his conceptual message out: Here is one candidate dedicated to doing what it takes to generate prosperity, to improve the quality of life and make government perform its people- oriented tasks effectively. Thanks to Mr. Steinberg's dwindling challenge, Mr. Glendening can continue emphasizing his themes without ''running scared'' in the primary.

But what comes after September 13? That's where Mr. Glendening has to shift gears. He will be in fierce combat with the likely Republican winner, Rep. Helen D. Bentley, for the political middle-ground. And at the moment, Mrs. Bentley is marginally ahead in the polls.

What will be the Glendening message for the general election? He gave a hint of that last Monday at a political gathering in Brooklandville.

The hosts of this affair illustrated Mr. Glendening's growing appeal to traditional Democrats who weren't in his camp a year ago. The party took place at the home of Theodore G. Venetoulis, who was fired last year as Mr. Steinberg's campaign manager. Now he's switched sides. Co-hosts included Jim Smith and Bob and Sandy Hillman -- longtime backers of the retiring Governor Schaefer (no friend of Mr. Glendening). The Prince George's executive has extended an open door to Democrats, and they are beginning to flock to his doorway as his lead widens.

More important was the speech delivered by Mr. Glendening that night. He cited his three heroes within the Democratic Party:

Adlai Stevenson, because of the intellect he brought to his two presidential campaigns. Hubert Humphrey, because of the human compassion he imbued in the party. And, surprisingly, Paul Tsongas -- because he brought the Democrats back to the political center with his 1992 presidential campaign.

That's precisely what Mr. Glendening will now try to do -- move back toward the political center. He was one of the earliest and strongest Tsongas supporters in Maryland. He and his political aides closely analyzed the Tsongas landslide in the 1992 Maryland primary. The lesson is crystal clear: statewide elections from now on will be decided in the suburbs, where voters are trending toward the mildly conservative side of the spectrum.

This means a general election campaign stressing Tsongas-style themes, such as sensibly downsizing government; ''reinventing'' delivery of government services; confronting budget deficits directly; carefully defining the limits of government. It means specific recommendations in these areas to prove to voters this isn't another political sleight-of-hand.

Helen Bentley would be a tough opponent. Despite her weaknesses, she espouses a conservative message that sounds similar to some of the things Mr. Tsongas was saying in 1992. It will be up to Mr. Glendening to define the core differences in their approaches and prove to voters that he, rather than Mrs. Bentley, is the true heir to the Tsongas approach that proved such a big hit in Maryland just two years ago.

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

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