With barely a month to go until the Nov. 8 general election, the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor are trying to place specially ground lenses over the eyes of Maryland voters, the better to see the true colors of the opposition.
To Democrat Parris N. Glendening and his supporters, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey is a right-wing extremist whose ,, policies would turn back the clock on abortion rights, destroy the public school system and permit Uzi-toting criminals to roam 4l the streets.
That is her secret agenda, Mr. Glendening and his handlers say. Her pledge to cut taxes and streamline government, the centerpiece of her campaign, is merely a Trojan horse to conceal her real motives. Just to be safe, though, the Glendening team trashes the tax cut plan, too.
To Mrs. Sauerbrey and her champions, Mr. Glendening is a free-spending liberal who can be rolled by any special interest group willing to endorse him, a disciple of big government out of touch with reality as middle class voters know it.
There is another image the Sauerbreys would like to convey of Mr. Glendening. It is punctuated by a picture of the Prince George's County executive taped to the wall of Sauerbrey headquarters in Cockeysville and by the single word below it: Taxman.
The implication is that Mr. Glendening as governor would raise taxes, which he has said he has no plans to do. Just as Mrs. Sauerbrey, despite her anti-abortion record, has said she would not attempt to reverse the 1992 referendum that solidly affirmed a woman's right to an abortion in Maryland.
At the moment, the race appears to be competitive, something of a surprise because Mr. Glendening not only survived a hard-fought primary battle, but turned three credible, reasonably well-funded rivals into road kill, the closest running 36 percentage points behind.
Mr. Glendening's victory in the primary, if not the margin, was expected. Mrs. Sauerbrey, however, charged past the Republican favorite, U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, surging from 13 points behind in the polls just before the election to 14 points ahead on primary day.
As a result, Mrs. Sauerbrey, the Republican leader of the Maryland House, became the focus of enormous news media attention immediately after the Sept. 13 primary. Nationally syndicated columnist George F. Will likened her to Margaret Thatcher. In the parlance of politics Mrs. Sauerbrey received a tremendous bounce from her victory, Mr. Glendening next to none.
"Most people didn't know who Ellen Sauerbrey was before Sept. 13, and so their first look at her was as this dragon slayer," said David Seldin, Mr. Glendening's press secretary.
The Glendening campaign, which had spent months preparing to take on Mrs. Bentley, suddenly found itself facing Mrs. Sauerbrey. Within hours, she came under attack from various Glendening surrogates, and soon from Mr. Glendening himself, as a dangerous fringe figure.
"One of the things we feel is important is educating voters on who she really is," said Emily Smith, Mr. Glendening's campaign manager. "She really is an extremist and represents the radical right."
A major question as the campaign goes into its final four weeks is the extent to which voters -- especially independents and moderate Republicans targeted by both sides -- accept that characterization. A related question is whether the charge is good politics.
"I think it's a mistake," said pollster Steven Raabe of Potomac Survey Research in Bethesda. "A lot of mainstream people voted for Ellen Sauerbrey in the primary, and they just don't feel cutting taxes is a radical-right proposal."
Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College, compared the Glendening game plan with President Jimmy Carter's strategy in 1980 of trying to tar challenger Ronald Reagan as a tool of the radical right.
The good news for Mrs. Sauerbrey is that Mr. Reagan was elected president by a wide margin. The bad news is he didn't carry heavily Democratic Maryland in 1980, though he did four years later.
Mrs. Sauerbrey may be more vulnerable, various political observers say, on her plan to cut personal income taxes by 24 percent over four years. She says it will cost $820 million, though Democrats put the price tag at $2 billion.
She has described in general terms how she would make the first year's cuts. After that, the proposal is so lacking in detail it resembles the secret plan of candidate Richard M. Nixon in 1968 to end the war in Vietnam.
"As voters get more and more information about [the tax proposal], they'll realize the difficulty and implications of doing that," said Del. Gene W. Counihan, a Montgomery County Democrat.
Another Montgomery Democrat, state Sen. Laurence Levitan, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, agreed, but with a nervous caveat.
"The numbers don't work," he said. "The question is, will people look at the numbers or just say it sounds like a good idea."