Glendening's lead is surprisingly slim CAMPAIGN 1994--THE RACE GOVERNOR

September 28, 1994|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

Democrat Parris N. Glendening holds only a small lead over Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey in a new poll, reinforcing predictions that this year's gubernatorial race may be the most competitive battle for the Maryland State House in three decades.

With roughly six weeks to go until the Nov. 8 election, the poll found Mr. Glendening leading Mrs. Sauerbrey by 7 percentage points, 47 percent to 40 percent, with 13 percent undecided.

The results are striking. Mr. Glendening, the Prince George's County executive, won the Sept. 13 Democratic primary with a breathtaking 54 percent of the vote over three major rivals. In past years, he would have been a prohibitive favorite in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 in voter registration.

Instead, he finds himself in the fight of his political life, at least in the early stages of the general election campaign.

"From an historical standpoint, this is probably the most competitive a Republican has been since 1966," said Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Political Media Research of Columbia, which conducted the poll for The Sun and other news organizations.

Mr. Coker was referring to Spiro T. Agnew's gubernatorial victory over Democrat George P. Mahoney 28 years ago.

"These numbers are a surprise," said another Maryland-based pollster, Keith Haller of Potomac Survey Research in Bethesda. "On primary night everyone thought Glendening would have a much more comfortable lead" over Mrs. Sauerbrey, he said.

The poll results suggest that Mrs. Sauerbrey, the Republican leader of the Maryland House, so far has been able to fend off Mr. Glendening's efforts to portray her as a right-wing extremist and expand the voter base that gave her a stunning come-from-behind primary victory over U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley.

In the poll, released yesterday, Mr. Glendening was running well ahead of his GOP rival in three of the four heaviest voting jurisdictions in the state -- Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince George's County, his political base.

But Mrs. Sauerbrey was leading everywhere else, including Baltimore County, her vote-rich base, the other suburban Baltimore counties, and rural areas of the state -- the Eastern Shore, Southern Maryland and Western Maryland.

Mr. Glendening was also scoring heavily among African-American voters, 78 percent to 8 percent; women, 53 percent to 36 percent; and his fellow Democrats, 66 percent to 19 percent, the poll showed.

Mrs. Sauerbrey was drawing more support from white voters, 51 percent to 37 percent; male voters, 44 percent to 41 percent; and other Republicans, 79 percent to 13 percent.

Both standard-bearers displayed noticeable but not readily explainable reversed gender gaps.

Mr. Glendening had the support of 41 percent of men, compared with 53 percent of women. Mrs. Sauerbrey was backed by 44 percent of male voters but only 36 percent of female voters.

For the poll, a total of 829 registered voters, selected at random, were interviewed by telephone last Wednesday through Friday. All said that they vote regularly in state elections.

L The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Mrs. Sauerbrey said her strong showing in the poll attested to the value of a contested primary, such as the one in which she and Mrs. Bentley engaged.

"It gave an opportunity to the winner to come out with a good head of steam going into general election," Mrs. Sauerbrey said.

Glendening spokesman Eric C. Andrus said, "It shows that after a very tough primary campaign in which Ellen was largely untested and we were pressured on many sides, Marylanders are turning to our message of pragmatic change that will move the state forward."

During the primary race, Mr. Glendening endured relentless attacks from his opponents, but outdistanced the closest by 36 percentage points. Mrs. Sauerbrey ran a hard-hitting campaign against Mrs. Bentley, who did not hit back, in large measure because of overconfidence.

Both Mrs. Sauerbrey and Mr. Andrus said that they see the key to victory as making clear to voters the distinct options they face in November.

Mrs. Sauerbrey described her strategy as "making sure voters know they have a clear choice, between a fiscal conservative and a tax-and-spend liberal."

Said Mr. Andrus, "We're going to hammer away at the contrast, the choice . . . . The battleground here is the mainstream Marylander who is not drawn to the extremist right-wing agenda that Sauerbrey offers."

Geographically, the battleground may well be Montgomery County, the most populous of the state's 24 major subdivisions.

Pollster Coker said Mrs. Sauerbrey can win if she beefs up her support in areas where she already leads, primarily the Baltimore suburbs, then limits Mr. Glendening to about 55 percent of the vote in Montgomery.

If she fails to do so, Mr. Coker said, Mr. Glendening could win by carrying only Baltimore City, where he enjoys strong support from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, and the two suburban Washington counties, Montgomery and Prince George's.

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