Visiting president is comeback hero to host Glendening Governor is likened to 'Comeback Kid' who defied the polls

February 10, 1997|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

When Bill Clinton comes to Annapolis today, Gov. Parris N. Glendening will have a chance to study his comeback role model -- up close and in action.

The governor could be watching for new ways to emulate a man who returned from the politically dead -- a president whose first-term troubles were thought to mean he could never win a second.

Glendening hopes to accomplish roughly the same feat, following the same upward trajectory as the president.

Clinton comes to Maryland as a champion of performance standards for the public schools, scholarships for B-average college students, health care coverage for poor women and infants and an array of other initiatives -- many of which Glendening has proposed for Maryland.

If this convergence of presidential and gubernatorial agendas is mere coincidence, it is a happy one for Glendening.

"I'm tickled that the president has chosen Maryland as the place to kickoff a national campaign for things that are so central to my values," the governor said.

Since last summer, when fund-raising and pension controversies drove his popularity into the ground, the governor's aides have bravely predicted that: The first-term governor would rebound as Marylanders began to see a record of solid accomplishment in education, law enforcement, economic development and land use controls.

He would arise as did the "Comeback Kid" -- the name Clinton gave himself in 1992 when he lost early presidential primaries only to come back strong and win his party's nomination. The title was cemented in the White House when his standing fell so low it was thought he could never win a second term. But he won easily.

The governor says he has not consciously copied Clinton's comeback strategy, but he said he has always been convinced that good policies would translate into good politics.

If that is the strategy, it has been working reasonably well in recent weeks.

"I'd rather spend four years fighting for families and children and then roll the dice in 1998 than sit around worrying about poll numbers and doing nothing," Glendening said.

Rising in the polls

Based partly on his tax-cut and scholarship initiatives -- and certain adjustments in his public persona -- Glendening's lowest-in-the-nation approval ratings have begun to improve. A recent poll showed him at 40 percent -- up from 24 percent during the summer.

He had fallen to such depths last summer that a substantial number of Maryland Democrats were casting about for someone to oppose him in the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial primary.

One potential challenger, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., will be on the stage with the governor and the president today.

Clinton faced a similarly ominous situation after his first two years in the White House.

"The president was under attack for missteps but when he was out there fighting for what he thought was right, he did well," Glendening said.

He acknowledged some similarities between Clinton's early difficulties and his own.

"We had some distractions [here] and we made some mistakes, and they tended to cover up accomplishments we were making," he said.

Glendening and top aides were found dipping into Prince George's County pension funds in questionable ways; one of his campaign contributors admitted to violations of the campaign finance laws; and Glendening himself went to New York for a fund raiser on the corporate jet of a businessman who was seeking a state contract.

All of this, the governor said, obscured strong gun control legislation, anti-smoking regulations, and legislation that allows women to remain in the hospital for 48 hours after childbirth.

Since then, he has proposed a 10 percent income tax cut, a "smart growth" land use policy and his various education initiatives.

He has been criticized repeatedly for having nothing more in mind than the election of 1998, but Glendening said his priorities have remained unchanged for years -- and insisted he gives little thought to the political consequences of his policies.

'Core beliefs?'

Nevertheless, both he and the president have been charged with having no "core beliefs."

Clinton's turnaround is often traced to his confrontation with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress on budget matters. Clinton refused to budge even in the face of a government shut-down.

Glendening has had no Gingrich, but he has had an issue: Gambling. He's against it (except for the state-run lottery.)

His position on the issue comes complete with a mantra-like periodic reminder: "No casinos. No slots. No exceptions," he says whenever the opportunity arises. The tactic could work, but because he presided over widespread charity gambling during his 12 years as Prince George's County executive, his conversion leaves some unimpressed.

"It's a marvel of disingenuousness," says Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the GOP's 1994 candidate for governor and its likely nominee in 1998. "If that is the strongest indication of a core belief, you can't have too much confidence in his."

Building consensus

Glendening's allies say the perception that he has no firm principles arises from his consensus building style.

"Anybody who wants to bring people to consensus," said Fred Hoover, a Democratic Party official from Hagerstown, "gets ripped for being wishy-washy."

"But consensus builders listen to a lot of opinions, compile a lot of information and move toward agreement. You may look like you're all over the lot as a result, but there are very few times in life when you can say my way or the highway. If you're going to have a democratic system that's the way it works."

Even Glendening's critics say he has made something of a comeback already.

"His biggest mistake was not defining himself -- except by mistakes," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, the Hagerstown Democrat. "He was not making the grand sweeping gestures a governor can make."

He's making them now and his partner is the president.

Pub Date: 2/10/97

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