They're at the gate. All standing nicely, or as nicely as politicians can. And, 18 months before the election, they're off!
To sort out the still-forming, fractious field in Maryland's 1998 race for governor, imagine for just a moment that you're watching a political version of the 1997 Preakness. (Warning: A brief indulgence is required of those who object to the horse-race approach to political writing.)
The morning line in our race would favor Gov. Parris N. Glendening: In Maryland, Democratic incumbents still get the edge. Think of him as Silver Charm, who arrives at Pimlico having won the Kentucky Derby.
The likely Republican entry, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, would have to be thought of as Captain Bodgit, who made a furious rush to the wire only to see Glendening hang on by an electoral nose in 1994, a mere 5,993 votes separating them at the finish.
Three more Democratic horses may enter, with 3rd District U.S. Representative Benjamin L. Cardin foremost among them. At the Preakness, Cardin's role was to be played by the reluctant Cryp Too. Urged and pushed, shoved and tugged, he finally got in the gate.
Don't be surprised, then, if Cardin posts by this fall.
The handicapping becomes more perilous at this point because none of the other contenders has gone anything like Preakness distance -- none has even run in a statewide election.
Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann announced her candidacy 10 days ago, and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. of Cumberland could follow -- but don't bet on any definitive announcement from Taylor if the Cardin talk continues.
On the Republican side, Howard County Executive Charles I. "Chuck" Ecker says he will challenge Sauerbrey, a curious decision given her strength -- unless it's designed to give the GOP some semblance of a primary, enough to gain media attention without leaving bruises.
So, there they are, the current competitors in what could be a critically important race for the highest office in Maryland.
'Run, Parris, run'
Republicans imagine themselves back in the Governor's Mansion after a 40-year absence.
Casting their collective eye on Glendening and pronouncing him weak, the GOP's battle cry for 1998 is "Run, Parris, run."
The Democrats, too, are taunting and sassy.
Bring on Sauergrapes, they say. The weaknesses that left her so agonizingly short remain, they insist, and will become more apparent over the next year and a half.
But many elected Democrats are living lives of quiet desperation, wondering if Glendening will drag them to defeat. They have to hope the tax cut he proposed, his sprawl initiative and various other conservative moves will make him -- and them -- stronger against the GOP.
Like the Republicans, they view him as open to damaging charges: that Prince George's County was in sorry financial shape when he left the executive's office to run for governor; that he arranged generous pension enhancements for himself (since renounced by Glendening) before he left and that his fund-raising zeal in Annapolis has been, at times, unseemly.
Glendening's team believes their man will rebound along with the Maryland economy, which shows less unemployment and more personal income. A tax cut, a sprawl control program and a 28 percent reduction in welfare rolls will help, too.
Since voters will have nothing to say about this until 1998, some see this ferment as the normal fretting of nervous insiders -- or as media hype or as career crises for out-of-work challengers, or even as the angst of Baltimore-centrists who wish to replace a governor who comes from the Maryland suburbs of Washington.
"There's always some gelatin in the mix, and people are trying to see which way it's jiggling," said Karl Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association and a solid supporter -- for now at least -- of Glendening. Sauerbrey and her supporters, meanwhile, relish the day she can order her first batch of 1998 commercials. These messages will have a "snouts in the trough" theme, said John Snyder, a Frederick businessman.
The GOP candidate wants to replace her sore-loser image with that of the lifelong patriot, daughter of a steel worker father and inspirational mother. When she announced last week, she spoke of her trip to the Berlin Wall as if it had happened yesterday -- and still posed a threat to the United States and Maryland today.
While she talked, a supportive heckler repeatedly urged her to cut taxes -- and she promised to give Marylanders a real tax cut, the full 24 percent she ran on in 1994. Glendening's 10 percent cut, she said, was Sauerbrey-lite.
The race was on.
* Congressman Cardin
Cardin represents Sauerbrey's worst nightmare: His nomination would remove many of the Glendening issues so delectable to Republicans. Friends say the active and public encouragement of Myrna Cardin, the congressman's wife, is an important indicator of his direction.