GOP hopeful Alexander picks up local support

THE POLITICAL GAME

March 08, 1995|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Sun Staff Writer

A year from now, it'll be all over.

The presidential primary in Maryland is March 5, 1996, which doesn't allow a lot of time for what is shaping up to be a decent GOP race.

While the early money has been on Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander is gaining ground locally after his down-home announcement Feb. 28.

Mr. Alexander hadn't gotten his plaid shirt back from the dry cleaners before a handful of Maryland Republicans scheduled a $1,000-a-plate fund-raising dinner for him March 29 at the Harbor Court Hotel in Baltimore. If all goes well, he'll walk out with $100,000 for the campaign.

Investment banker Gregory H. Barnhill is leading the charge for Mr. Alexander. Mr. Barnhill has corralled a number of big-money Republicans to lend their support.

"Lamar's support is accelerating geometrically, instead of arithmetically," said Mr. Barnhill, who is on the candidate's national finance committee, as he was for Mr. Bush in 1988 and 1992.

"He's a moderate . . . who could appeal to a broad base," Mr. Barnhill said.

And that is exactly why national political handicappers are taking the Alexander candidacy seriously, despite his poor early showing in opinion polls behind Mr. Dole and Mr. Gramm.

Among the Baltimore-area folks who have fallen in behind Mr. Alexander's bid are Stuart S. Janney III, the gentleman race horse breeder from Greenspring Valley who is a managing director of Alex. Brown Inc.; Matthew S. Polk Jr., chairman of Polk Audio; and Richard C. Riggs Jr., president and chief executive officer of Barton-Cotton Inc., a direct mail and fund-raising company for nonprofit groups.

But the real coup for the Alexander campaign appears to be the much-sought-after Martin L. Grass, president of Rite Aid Corp., the nation's largest drugstore chain. He has a reputation in Pennsylvania, where his company is headquartered, as a loyal GOP fund-raiser.

Mr. Grass, who lives in Timonium, has become everyone's darling recently for buying the long vacant Hecht Co. building on Howard Street with the hope of kick-starting life into the city's retail district.

Despite his early support in Maryland, Mr. Alexander will face an uphill fight in a state where Mr. Gramm and Mr. Dole have won friends.

In fact, Mr. Gramm, who owns a vacation home on the Eastern Shore, was very visible in last year's election, lending a hand in drumming up dough for local and legislative GOP candidates.

"He's been at the beck and call of the party," said Joyce L. Terhes, Maryland Republican Party chairwoman. "If someone needed help with a fund-raiser, he was very easy to get to and willing to go and do."

Mr. Gramm -- whose campaign is considered well organized in Maryland, particularly in vote-rich Montgomery County -- held a get-to-know-the-candidate breakfast Jan. 31 at the Fleet Reserve Club in Annapolis where he tried to sign on state legislators, with some success.

His toughest competition has been Mr. Dole, who also scored points among the locals in the last year.

Mr. Dole, who is expected to announce his candidacy next month, is close to former Tennessee Sen. Bill Brock, now of Annapolis, who lost his bid to return to the Senate last year against Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. He was a headliner at a state party fund-raiser to support the Election Inquiry Fund for Ellen R. Sauerbrey's unsuccessful challenge of the governor's race. And last month, he was among the first callers to Mrs. Sauerbrey's radio talk show on WBAL.

Mr. Dole also lent his name to a fund-raising effort to retire the campaign debt of William S. Shepard, the 1990 Republican standard-bearer in the governor's race, who lost last year in the primary.

In addition to Mr. Dole and Mr. Gramm -- two members of the party's dominant conservative wing -- Mr. Alexander now faces competition from another moderate, Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, who declared his candidacy Friday.

And there are other wild cards who could enter the race and dim Mr. Alexander's chances: California Gov. Pete Wilson, for instance. Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, an undeclared candidate, already is scheduled to speak at a March 31 Lincoln Day Dinner in Montgomery County.

Nevertheless, Mr. Barnhill maintains, "Lamar might surprise a lot of people with his grass-roots support. Look at where Clinton started."

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