Vision earned Sauerbrey votes CAMPAIGN 1994 -- THE RACE FOR GOVERNOR PRIMARY 1994

September 15, 1994|By John W. Frece and Robert Timberg | John W. Frece and Robert Timberg,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff writers Peter Jensen and Rafael Alvarez contributed to this article.

Ellen R. Sauerbrey won the Republican nomination for governor by grabbing voters by the pocketbook, promising them tax relief and a smaller government in a message both clear and consistent.

She started campaigning early, never wavered, and in the end energized the conservative voters most likely to turn out in a GOP primary, including gun rights advocates, anti-abortion Christians and tax rebels.

Helen Delich Bentley lost Tuesday's primary because she ran an aloof, almost arrogant campaign in which she seemed more interested in being anointed than elected.

These conclusions emerge from interviews with both the Sauerbrey and Bentley camps, with GOP office holders, state party officials, pollsters, other veteran political observers and rank-and-file Republicans.

"The polls [which showed Mrs. Bentley the front-runner] put her campaign to sleep," said Dianna Guthrie, a supporter from the Harford County community of Rumsey Island. "They thought they had this primary in their pocket."

Pollster Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Political Media Research, said, "Using a sports analogy, she had a big half-time HTC lead and tried to run out the clock."

Added Herbert C. Smith, a professor of political science at Western Maryland College: "Every election, regardless of your past history and achievements, has to be earned these days. Ellen earned it; Helen didn't."

Rather than articulating why she wanted to be governor, the five-term congresswoman from Lutherville ducked debates and bypassed candidate forums. "That made people think: 'Do we want this person to be our governor?' " said Ida Fields, a Sauerbrey backer from Jessup.

Mrs. Bentley agonized for months over whether to give up her safe congressional seat and whether to run for governor or the U.S. Senate.

Party faithful felt she was toying with them, selfishly freezing other candidates out of both races while she made up her mind. Republicans were convinced that 1994 could be their year if they could only break fast from the starting gate, but Mrs. Bentley was throwing up obstacles.

"I thinks she was too long in announcing, too indecisive about that," said Rose Dykes of Freeland, a former Bentley supporter who backed Mrs. Sauerbrey this time around.

"We needed her to take on [U.S. Sen. Paul] Sarbanes, and she wouldn't. We needed her to announce for governor early, and she wouldn't," she said. "It scared me her committee was telling her not to debate, that her committee told her not to make public appearances. That made me think we'd have a committee for governor."

Once she got in the race, Mrs. Bentley was slow putting together a campaign team, and even when she did, it rarely functioned smoothly or efficiently.

"I never saw a Bentley bumper sticker or yard sign," said Mason Dixon's Mr. Coker.

She seemed to take positions on issues because it was expected of her, not because they were part of some master plan to move the state forward.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Sauerbrey, a Baltimore County delegate for 16 years and House Minority Leader for the past eight, was talking ** specifics, offering-budget cutting proposals and a plan to lower individual income taxes by 24 percent over the next four years.

"The tax cut [proposal] was the defining moment of the campaign -- the one thing people could relate to," said Carol L. Hirschburg, Mrs. Sauerbrey's campaign finance director.

Couldn't stop surge

Mrs. Bentley ignored charges by Mrs. Sauerbrey that she was little more than a Republican clone of departing Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who had urged her to get in the race, but whose tax and spending policies have been anathema to rank-and-file Republicans.

Asked why she was running for governor, the best Mrs. Bentley could do was say she wanted to make Maryland more of a two-party state and wanted to improve the state's business climate.

Mr. Coker said by the time the Bentley camp "woke up to the fact that something was happening, there was not a lot she could do. One week of television [ads] is not going to stop that kind of surge."

When time came for the Bentley voters to stand up, very few were there on election day. While her name recognition was high, her support turned out to be soft. To some, her candidacy was like a Hollywood back-lot: It looked real until you inspected it up close.

Nice too long?

Friends yesterday said the 70-year-old former newspaperwoman went against her own instincts to fight, listening instead to the advice of campaign professionals who counseled her to keep her powder dry until the general election. Privately, she told friends at a post-primary Republican unity brunch yesterday that she remained too nice for too long.

Some GOP activists who have known her for years suggested somewhat ungraciously that her defeat was repayment for a hot temperament that too often scalded those around her.

The defeat probably signals the end of a remarkable political career that included five terms in the House of Representatives and a stint as the first chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission.

At yesterday's unity brunch, she was accorded a long ovation for her years of work building the state party.

Several Republicans commented wryly that, were it not for Mrs. Bentley, the party might not have been strong enough to have the contested primary election that likely ended her career.

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