Ecker eyes governor's office for '98 race But Howard executive would face GOP power of Sauerbrey for bid

August 25, 1996|By Craig Timberg and William F. Zorzi Jr. | Craig Timberg and William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, whose moderate politics and easygoing style have made him one of the most successful Republicans in county history, is seriously weighing a run for governor -- against the powerful conservative Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

In making that bid, Ecker would face an enormous uphill fight to try to win a 1998 GOP primary election against Sauerbrey -- a formidable opponent with statewide name recognition and a loyal following among the conservative voters who dominate the Republican primary.

Nevertheless, Ecker has been considering a gubernatorial run for several months and has met with party leaders -- including former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, Sauerbrey's 1994 primary opponent and archrival -- to lay the groundwork for a possible campaign, sources say.

His closest advisers are urging him to run as a moderate, experienced and voter-friendly alternative to Sauerbrey, whose campaign in 1994 brought Republicans within 5,993 votes of winning the governorship for the first time in 28 years.

"I'm considering it, seriously considering it," said Ecker, who cannot run for executive again after his term expires in 1998. "The possibility seems greater today than it did several months ago."

One of the reasons a run for the State House may seem attractive is that Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening appears more vulnerable than before, given a series of recent missteps and low popularity ratings in the polls.

But before Ecker could challenge Glendening in the 1998 general election, he must clear what his closest advisers acknowledge is a significant hurdle -- defeating Sauerbrey, who has been running for governor virtually nonstop since her narrow loss in 1994.

"I think I have a very good chance of winning it again, but I'm taking nothing for granted," Sauerbrey said last week.

But some state Republicans, including some of Ecker's advisers, say Sauerbrey left voters with a bad impression in 1994, particularly after vigorously contesting Glendening's narrow victory in court.

"People don't like Ellen," said Roger Caplan of Columbia, Ecker's media director in 1990 and 1994. "She's not someone you can cuddle up to."

Ecker's supporters gush about the prospect of his running for governor, recalling the months in 1990 when he went from a little-known, retired school administrator -- and registered Democrat -- to the first Republican to be elected county executive in Howard's history. A prior Republican county executive, J. Hugh Nichols, was elected as a Democrat and switched parties in office.

But with just $5,000 in his campaign account, not a lot of name recognition outside Howard County and divided loyalties among Republicans in his home base, party regulars believe that the possibility of a successful statewide campaign by Ecker is difficult to take seriously at this point.

At home, Sauerbrey has the enduring support of two of Howard County's most prominent Republicans -- House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman and Del. Robert L. Flanagan.

"Politics is the art of the possible," Flanagan said. "And Chuck Ecker winning the Republican nomination is not possible as long as Ellen Sauerbrey is there."

Flanagan said that advisers who are pushing Ecker to run are "a little bit over their heads when it comes to statewide Republican politics."

Along those lines, a Republican insider familiar with state party politics, said the push for Ecker as a gubernatorial candidate first surfaced more than six months ago, but faded away in the face of Howard Republican leaders' support for Sauerbrey.

On the Democratic side, a Glendening spokesman last week said the governor is concerned right now with "moving programs forward" -- not the 1998 general election or potential opponents.

"The governor's very confident that his record will speak for itself," said Raymond C. Feldmann, the spokesman. "The voters will make that decision in 1998, and the governor's very confident of a positive outcome."

Ecker has not yet convened his "kitchen cabinet" -- his informal group of a half-dozen close advisers -- to plot possible campaign strategy. Nor has he begun to raise money. He has not had a single fund-raiser since his landslide re-election in 1994. State records show his campaign coffers have less than $5,000.

To run successfully, particularly against an organized, well-known opponent like Sauerbrey, would take $3 million or $4 million, Ecker and his advisers say. The most he has ever raised was about $250,000 for his 1994 campaign.

"He does not have the kind of grass-roots organization across the state that she does," said Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Political Media Research in Columbia and a longtime Ecker supporter. "And to fight something like that takes big bucks."

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