Sauerbrey will be ready to run in 1998 Republican leader crisscrosses the state, working for the future

June 18, 1996|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Ellen R. Sauerbrey is the Maryland GOP's lady in waiting.

In the 19 months since she lost to Gov. Parris N. Glendening by a scant 5,993 votes, Sauerbrey has slipped slowly from the status of prime-time to some-time in the minds of voters. She failed in her court challenge to the election, railed loudly against the Democrats' seeming lock on the state and grudgingly accepted defeat.

All the while, she has moved steadily toward a rematch for the State House in 1998. Until now, Sauerbrey has been coy about her intentions -- though there was little doubt she would run for governor again.

But in an interview last week, when asked if she were running for governor, she said, "My response is one my father used to use: 'If the good Lord's willing, and the creek don't rise.'

"At this point, there are no formal announcements, but I think it's very clear that my focus is on moving forward to be in the position to make that run," she said.

Indeed.

Keeping her name out there is a full-time job, one that re-quires a small volunteer staff to keep up with phone calls and letters.

These days, the one-time minority leader of the House of Delegates is on the road, crisscrossing the state to deliver speeches to Republican groups, business leaders and even high school graduating classes.

Although support for Sauerbrey is not universal among state party regulars -- some have quietly initiated a small "anybody-but-Ellen" campaign -- the 58-year-old former Baltimore County delegate still enjoys a zealous following.

She has held onto, and continues to cultivate, a statewide grass-roots organization that includes GOP central committee members in outlying counties -- one that she mobilized behind Texan Phil Gramm's aborted presidential bid.

"Ellen has grown tremendously as a candidate since she first started to run for governor in 1993," said Carol L. Hirschburg, Sauerbrey's 1994 fund-raiser and spokeswoman who still is a close adviser.

Since the 1994 governor's race and its bitter fallout, Sauerbrey has continued to raise money for her political future, most recently with a $1,000-a-couple fund-raiser at the home of one of her biggest patrons, Baltimore businessman Richard E. Hug, retired chairman of Environmental Elements Corp.

She now has a de facto campaign advisory staff in place that operates under the banner of United Citizens for Maryland's Future -- a group of business leaders and others that was created, she says, to "establish strong positive free-enterprise solutions to public problems."

And last month, she found an official capacity with the Republican Party when she was elected Maryland's national committeewoman to succeed her archrival, former 2nd District Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who will step down at the GOP national convention this summer. She also is heading the get-out-the-vote effort for the state party's Victory '96 coordinated campaign in the presidential and congressional races this fall.

"She's behaving like a candidate, and by and large she's being treated like the nominee," said Carol A. Arscott, vice president of Mason-Dixon Campaign Polling & Strategy Inc. "Everywhere she goes, there're people who come up to her and say, 'Ellen, when you're governor ' "

The only thing that stands in the way, of course, is the Democratic Party -- which boasts a 2-to-1 voter-registration edge over Republicans in the state -- and its incumbent governor.

Glendening, who is as acutely aware of the GOP competition as he is a possible challenge from within his own party, deadpanned when asked about a rematch with Sauerbrey.

"Who?" he asked jokingly.

"As a practical matter, I never worry about who the opposition is," said Glendening, who raised a record $5.2 million in 1994 and has never stopped raising money since. "I've never run against anyone; I just go out and sell my message."

The next time, the governor said, "We will have a darned good message."

And, he predicted, "We will win comfortably -- whoever the opponent is."

The Democrats say they would like to see Glendening again face Sauerbrey, whom they tarred with the "too conservative for Maryland" brush during the last campaign.

Democrats maintain that Sauerbrey's success in 1994 stemmed from the appeal of her promise to slash state personal income taxes by 24 percent over four years, that her cliffhanger finish was a one-shot phenomenon, and that the Republican tide that nearly cost them the State House is receding.

That, too, is the concern of some in the state GOP who recently floated the idea of Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker challenging Sauerbrey in the Republican primary, a notion that appears to have fizzled for now.

Others, such as Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary, would like to see 2nd District Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- one of the party's best hopes for its future in Maryland -- try for governor. But he has made it clear that he is not interested at this point, particularly with Sauerbrey intending to run.

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