If Mistakes Are Teachers, There's a Lot to Learn

November 13, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Looking back on the Great Maryland Race of '94, it's possible to identify some of the missteps by Democrat Parris Glendening and Republican Ellen Sauerbrey. The election needn't have been this close -- and learning the results certainly shouldn't have taken so long. Each candidate made some costly misjudgments.

Most of the flubs lie on Mr. Glendening's side. He ran an uninspired and politically naive general-election campaign, especially in the Baltimore suburbs. No wonder he got run over like a freight train in those counties.

His choice of a running mate, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, proved a major liability. With a Kennedy on the ticket, how can you convince voters you're not just another ''tax and spend'' Democrat? She added virtually nothing to the ticket on election day, and was often a negative factor.

Mr. Glendening also erred by not recognizing the conservative trend that began in Maryland in 1990. Take away Governor Schaefer's 3-1 winning margins in liberal Baltimore and in Prince George's County and Montgomery County, and the 1990 election with Republican Bill Shepard -- a virtual unknown -- was almost a tie.

That same trend reappeared in this year's election, in large measure because Mr. Glendening presented himself as a traditional Democrat, intent on implementing big-spending programs in education and kowtowing to liberal-leaning groups. That plan worked well in the primary, where the inclination of Democratic candidates is to steer to the left. But in the general election, that approach alienated moderate suburbanites fed up with eight years of big-government activity under Mr. Schaefer. They saw Mr. Glendening as another assembly-line liberal.

What happened to the ''new-style'' Democrat that Mr. Glendening championed in the 1992 presidential campaign of Paul Tsongas? He never made a convincing case that he was serious about shrinking the size of government or making dramatic changes.

Nor did Mr. Glendening ever define himself in detail for voters. He issued a ''something-for-everyone'' issues booklet but never got into specifics of his proposals during the general-election campaign. It was all sound bites and attack-ad rhetoric.

And Mr. Glendening never told voters who he was. Throughout the campaign, he remained a cardboard cut-out. Stiff as a board. Machine-gun delivery. No humor. He started the campaign as a stranger to those outside Prince George's County -- and he still is.

He never gave a human perspective to his life that voters could identify with. He's got a great story to tell, but he never did so: Growing up in extreme poverty. Being saved by his love of learning. A brother dying of AIDS. A relative committing suicide. None of this ever was aired. Too bad. Mr. Glendening needed to find a way for people to see his vulnerable side.

The Democrat also refused to listen to campaign suggestions. His Prince George's coterie of advisers set a strategy and wouldn't budge, even though they were ignorant about political realities in the Baltimore suburbs. Said one politico who tried to steer Mr. Glendening in the right direction, ''If you weren't a P.G. insider, you were ignored.''

The candidate relied far too much on second-rate TV attack ads to win the election. There was never any strong case made as to why someone should cast a vote FOR Mr. Glendening.

As for Mrs. Sauerbrey, her biggest mistake was in writing off the minority votes of Baltimore and Prince George's County. It wouldn't have taken much effort to devise a conservative urban strategy to give her credibility in these two jurisdictions. Losing by a 4-1 margin in those areas proved far too costly.

Likewise, she failed to make sufficient inroads in liberal areas of Montgomery County where a well-tailored campaign geared to voters' sense of alienation from Annapolis might have paid off handsomely.

Yet there's no doubt Mrs. Sauerbrey ran the better campaign. It was tightly focused, it hit the themes that most concerned people and it proved that good campaigns don't have to cost $6 million.

And because Mrs. Sauerbrey took the pragmatic step to accept public campaign financing -- though it flies in the face of her conservative ideology -- she could concentrate all her efforts on winning over voters. In contrast, Mr. Glendening devoted huge chunks of time up until the final week dunning supporters for more and more funds. Sadly, most of the $6 million money went for insipid attack ads that voters learned to hate.

Still, Mr. Glendening -- barring a stunning reversal via a recount or a court order -- appears to have staggered across the finish line in front, though with such a meager majority that it could cast a pall over his term in office.

Nearly 50 percent of voters rejected his candidacy. His support was isolated in a handful of urban and sophisticated suburban areas. An energized and fast-charging conservative Republican Party already is nipping at his heels.

And Ellen Sauerbrey gave every indication last week of remaining in a campaign mode -- until the next election for governor in 1998.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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