For Sauerbrey, Now Comes the Hard Part

September 18, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Now that the euphoria has started to subside in the Ellen Sauerbrey camp, it's time to examine some cold, hard facts. Mrs. Sauerbrey, regardless of how brilliant her upset primary victory over Helen Bentley may have been, is a decided underdog in the race for governor.

She faces a Democratic opponent who comes out of his own primary in surprisingly good shape, who could outspend her by 3-1, and who has the enormous advantage of a 2-1 edge in the voter-registration rolls.

If anyone should be euphoric, it is Parris Glendening. His well-oiled campaign machine continues to pick up momentum.

Mrs. Sauerbrey's triumph in the GOP primary helps the Democratic nominee enormously in solidifying party support: Mrs. Bentley posed a much greater threat because of her appeal to Baltimore business leaders, union leaders and to Reagan Democrats who have voted for her regularly in the past.

A ''Democrats for Bentley'' committee could well have been led by the state's governor, top Baltimore business executives and virtually the entire political leadership of eastern Baltimore County. That's no longer a worry.

Mrs. Sauerbrey's hard-core conservatism is anathema to most regular Democratic pols. The idea of crossing party lines to support her isn't a viable option.

The arithmetic now looks good for Mr. Glendening. He will win a tidal wave of support in his own Prince George's County and in Baltimore. He should win by a healthy margin in Montgomery County, since he would be the first governor from the Washington suburbs in 120 years. Democratic regulars are likely to stick by their candidate in the Baltimore suburbs and in parts of rural Maryland.

Even a pessimistic scenario turns out well for the Democratic nominee. If he holds onto all his primary votes, gets 80 percent of the Mary Boergers vote, only 40 percent of the Mickey Steinberg vote, just 30 percent of the American Joe Miedusiewski vote and 40 percent of the independent vote, Mr. Glendening still beats Mrs. Sauerbrey -- even assuming that she picks up all the Republican votes from her two primary opponents.

But there are some major unknowns that could change the political picture. A Haitian invasion by President Clinton might poison popular opinion against all Democrats in the November election. Mr. Glendening's similarities to Mr. Clinton --

they're both policy wonks, liberals at heart and serious students of government -- aren't things he wants to advertise in this campaign.

Even more troubling for the Democrat is the latent anger toward government expressed in the Sauerbrey primary vote and much of the balloting for local offices.

Helen Bentley was viewed as too much a part of the Establishment, too cozy with the unpopular incumbent Democratic governor, too much an insider. She got her head handed to her by Republican voters screaming for drastic change. Will that be reflected by the wider electorate in November?

The Sauerbrey theme in this campaign is clear -- cut taxes, slash the bureaucracy, shrink the size of government and get tough on crime. It proved highly appealing in the primary. People want to hear that their taxes will be lower and that bloated government will be put on a starvation diet -- even if it's not fiscally possible or prudent.

Ironically, what Mrs. Sauerbrey is preaching isn't that far removed from the sermon preached by one of Mr. Glendening's idols, Paul Tsongas. Both are saying: Let's reinvent government that is smaller, less intrusive, less expensive, more efficient, more businesslike.

That seemed to be the direction the Glendening camp was headed when the candidate took the politically risky step two years ago of embracing the Tsongas-for-president movement. He was one of the few top local officials to back Mr. Tsongas, who went on to crush Bill Clinton in the Maryland presidential primary in the fast-growing suburbs, which I labeled at the time as the ''Tsongas Belt.''

Since then, Mr. Glendening has mysteriously moved his campaign to the left -- away from the Tsongas message and toward the liberal spectrum of the Democratic Party. The discontented voters in the Tsongas Belt are up for grabs.

And make no mistake, these voters are still angry at government. If Mrs. Sauerbrey delivers her message of lower taxes and smaller government with as much quiet eloquence as she did in the primary, she could ignite the first big conservative trend in statewide politics since the days of Sen. John Marshall Butler in the 1950s. The November 8 balloting will test whether Maryland remains a liberal state or one that is shifting rapidly to the right as discontent among the citizenry grows.

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

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