Ben Cardin looks home

November 17, 1996|By Barry Rascovar

WHEN Republicans retained control of Congress on November 5, they did more than make life miserable for Bill Clinton: They altered the complexion of Maryland's 1998 gubernatorial election.

Benjamin L. Cardin, the popular Baltimore-area congressman and veteran state leader, is now "definitely learning toward" a race for governor. That's a 180-degree turn. The reason can be summed up in two words: Newt Gingrich.

Up until now, Mr. Cardin had expressed an eagerness to stay in Washington. He expected a Clinton victory and a return to Democratic control in the House. Then, as a majority member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, he could help pass legislation to save Medicare and improve the health-care system.

But with Republicans solidly still in charge, it quickly became clear that what Democrat Cardin faced in coming years would be more frustration, bitter partisanship and legislative gridlock as a member of the House minority.

That's not Mr. Cardin's style. He's a consensus-builder, a centrist who made his mark as the youngest-ever House speaker in Annapolis by practicing bipartisan inclusion. He was a brilliant legislator and strategist in the state capital who reveled in passing meaningful legislation.

No wonder he's unhappy with prospects in Washington.

What would a Cardin for Governor candidacy do to the 1998 race? Turn it upside down.

He has long been the No. 1 choice of Democrats seeking to defeat their own governor, Parris Glendening. In a Cardin-Glendening race, the governor would be the underdog, with his eroding bases of support badly undercut.

A general election race between Mr. Cardin and Republican Ellen Sauerbrey would leave Ms. Sauerbrey in a deep hole, too, because Mr. Cardin's strength is wider and deeper than Mr. Glendening's, especially in crucial Baltimore City and suburban precincts and in voter-rich Montgomery County.

Mr. Cardin's broad popularity among elected officials also is a plus. Top local Democrats have expressed dismay over the governor's performance in office. They are anxious to find a candidate like Mr. Cardin to rally around. With Mr. Glendening at the top of the ticket, they fear a Republican rout in 1998.

Ten years ago, Mr. Cardin tried to launch a gubernatorial candidacy but it got nowhere. His failure pushed William Donald Schaefer into the race to prevent Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs from winning the election. In 1994, Mr. Cardin again was viewed as a leading contender, but he opted to stay in Congress where he felt he could play a major role shaping health-care legislation in a Democratic house.

Was he ever wrong.

So why would Mr. Cardin take the gubernatorial plunge this time? Because he is effectively dead-ended in Washington. Because of Mr. Glendening's unpopularity among elected leaders and voters. Because it could represent his best chance to run for a job he has long desired.

He would be a formidable candidate. He'd have no trouble raising all the money he needs. He shouldn't have trouble persuading other gubernatorial wannabes to stand aside. He won 67 percent of the vote in gaining a sixth term to Congress from a diverse district that includes parts of the city and Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties.

He is a shining star in Jewish areas of metro Baltimore and in Montgomery County. He has developed a loyal following of voters that crosses age, gender, racial and geographic barriers. And with his congressional and political contacts across the state, it should be a snap to organize a statewide campaign.

It would be a tough juggernaut to stop, in the primary or in the general election.

For Mr. Glendening, just back from an overseas economic development trip, this is terrible news. But for Ms. Sauerbrey, carefully plotting her next run for governor, it is even worse: Parris Glendening, at the moment, looks like an easy target for the Republican; Ben Cardin, though, could be the toughest Democrat to beat.

Mr. Cardin has never been a political risk-taker. That's why many observers won't believe he is serious until he actually announces. But Newt Gingrich does funny things to people. He seems to have made Ben Cardin homesick for the Annapolis State House.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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