Harry Hughes is patron saint of also-rans

September 08, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On mornings like this, the also-rans remember Harry Hughes and imagine his little piece of lightning striking them. The polls say Glendening and Bentley are winners next week, but those trailing the leaders embrace the sacred memory of Hughes, elected governor 16 autumns ago, who thus became Maryland's patron saint of political lost causes.

A lost ball in high grass, Harry McGuirk famously called Hughes. People chuckled. A distant, hopeless loser, the pollsters said. Everybody who saw Hughes as bright and shiny after the Mandel years felt sorry for him: Such a nice young man. Such an embarrassment of a campaign.

Sixteen years ago this month, they had a televised debate out at Channel 2, where all the Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Hughes and Blair Lee and Ted Venetoulis and Wally Orlinsky, made their final, nervous pitches to the electorate. Afterward, a bunch of them, plus a few hangers-on, went over to John Unitas' Golden Arm and crowded themselves around a few small tables.

The ones like Orlinsky and Hughes knew in their souls it was over for them. Orlinsky, trying to brazen his way through his misery, had a bowl full of popcorn balanced atop his head, and he was leading everyone in the place in great, Falstaffian whoops of laughter.

Poor Hughes seemed oblivious to everything around him. He sat there staring glumly into his drink, wondering what to do with the remaining years of his life, looking like a man with an option on a ledge from which he could jump -- until the following week, when the voters marched in and handed him the election.

Thus, on mornings like this, the also-rans remember Harry Hughes and dream it could happen to them. The latest Mason-Dixon poll says Parris Glendening leads Mickey Steinberg by 27 points. It says Helen Bentley leads Ellen Sauerbrey by 17.

But the candidates read their own numbers. At Steinberg headquarters yesterday, there was talk of their own poll, and numbers that have their man trailing Glendening not by 27, but by 9 points, 35 to 26, with the gap closing in recent weeks and with 18 percent of the voters still undecided.

At Sauerbrey headquarters, the talk is similar. Even if you buy the Mason-Dixon numbers, they say, look at the distance Sauerbrey has covered. Trailing by 34 points in July, she's now cut that margin in half.

At American Joe Miedusiewski's headquarters, they prefer not to dwell on polls at all. Glendening and Steinberg will destroy each other, they say, pointing to barbed television commercials. They say their man could sneak in the way Hughes did.

"These guys are mercilessly attacking each other," says Jim Brochin, Miedusiewski's campaign manager. "Steinberg attacks, Glendening says Mickey's not telling the truth. It's a back-and-forth TV war now, and while those two bicker with each other, we've come in real positive."

It's Miedusiewski's first shot at TV, so the ads have to grab everyone's attention. There's a fellow singing an American Joe ditty to the tune of "The Lady is a Tramp." Some in the Miedusiewski camp aren't thrilled by the spot. They wanted a more traditional ad, but the thinking finally prevailed that Miedusiewski needed something provocative.

On mornings like this, those slighted by the polls scramble for late TV money, and imagine Harry Hughes scenarios. This morning, Mickey Steinberg goes to Belair Road to wave at cars. His campaign people describe him as "very positive." Mary Boergers, running fourth, stands at Falls Road and presents a picture of dogged cheerfulness.

And American Joe Miedusiewski's people, gloomy over poll numbers indicating low support in the D.C.-area suburbs, talk of a parade in Greenbelt three days ago, where the reception for their guy was glorious.

"Listen," Miedusiewski was saying yesterday, from a car phone in southern Maryland. "I was up at 3:30 this morning. I can't sleep, I'm so pumped up. This campaign isn't over. Parris is bankrolled, Mickey's reached into his pocket for $300,000, but now we're on TV, too. It's all name recognition. My numbers will come up again. People don't focus until after Labor Day, and . . ."

And let's not forget Harry Hughes. He was here once, 16 years ago, and on days like this, he becomes the patron saint of allegedly lost causes.

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