Glendening's biggest foe is low approval rating Assessment calls him 'most vulnerable'

September 04, 1997|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

With a formidable opponent out of the way, Gov. Parris N. Glendening's foremost challenger now may be Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin this week chose not to enter a party primary against Glendening, but left the field with a slap at his party's incumbent:

"I remain concerned about [his] political viability," Cardin said.

Low approval ratings in public opinion polls give Glendening the look of an endangered incumbent and could draw others into the 1998 race. Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann is there already, banking on her conclusion that the governor's low approval among voters is not a passing thing.

The Washington-based political analyst Charles Cook, assessing the re-election prospects of governors across the nation, calls Glendening "without question the most vulnerable incumbent governor" -- leaving aside only Gov. Fife Symington of Arizona, who was convicted yesterday of bank fraud and said he would leave office tomorrow.

Others think the withdrawal of Cardin, regarded by many as the strongest Democratic opponent, will afford Glendening a new look from the Maryland electorate. If the highly respected Third District representative wouldn't take him on, some say, Glendening must have something going for him and perhaps his ratings will improve before the election.

"I don't think it's an image made in cement," said Herb Smith, a political scientist and pollster at Western Mary-

land College. "There are negative perceptions but they're thin. There's been a lot of negative information on him, but it's not make-or-break stuff. He's got a great economy and the credit-claiming stage of the campaign is approaching."

Glendening, 55, needs a sharper focus on his record of accomplishment, Smith said. Now that the focus has shifted away from Cardin, some see that message getting across more easily.

"My expectation is that the numbers will show significant improvement over the coming months," said former Maryland congressman Michael D. Barnes, the Glendening campaign chairman. "My guess is that they're up over the last few days, in part because of his decisive action to close the Pocomoke River [after an outbreak of Pfiesteria piscicida killed thousands of fish and sickened dozens of people] and in part because of Congressman Cardin's decision."

Barnes said he now expects "no major opposition in the Democratic primary," dismissing Rehrmann as "not in the same category as Cardin."

He predicted that the likely GOP challenger, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, will be seen as a radical, out of step with Maryland. As voters focus on Glendening's accomplishments, he said, the Democrat will have a "fairly easy" time of it in 1998.

But other Democrats say Barnes, a Washington lawyer who lives in Montgomery County, is out of touch with the mood of the electorate -- even in his own county. Said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, "There is concern among a lot of the Democrats in this county about his ability to get re-elected."

After directing a reporter to several aides, Glendening's staff said he did not have time to speak with a reporter yesterday about his low approval ratings and how he might improve them.

Secretary of State John T. Willis, a close adviser to Glendening, says Maryland history is on the governor's side. A student of this state's electoral history, Willis says Democratic incumbents have prevailed in Maryland primaries since the early 1900s. That, he says, is an enduring "dynamic" and unlikely to change in 1998.

Sauerbrey says Glendening is stuck with his own history.

"I think the tone of his tenure was set soon after the last election when people found out that he had left the Prince George's County [where he served as county executive] with a huge deficit and then came pension scam. If there's one thing people will say to me, one thing they really remember, it's that he tried to pull off this cushy pension deal for himself."

At the start of his term as governor, Glendening and his aides were prepared to receive improved pension benefits from Prince George's County on the theory that they had been involuntarily separated from county service. After this became public, Glendening said he would not accept the enhanced benefit.

Several Democrats, including Barnes, yesterday did not sidestep what they called Glendening's "rocky" start. Asked how he would advise Glendening to cope with that criticism, Western Maryland's Smith -- not a member of the Glendening team -- paused and said:

"Weather the storm. Don't make any more mistakes. The damage is done. Those who will vote against you on that have made up their minds."

And Glendening's one-time critic-turned-ally, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., says the governor needs to "continue to work on bringing people together."

With the primary election more than a year away, Glendening has time to recover. Once the field of candidates is truly in place, Willis says, approval ratings will begin to mean something.

Nevertheless, political eyes will be drawn to those numbers.

"I think you have to wait until the next legislative session is over," said Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, "and see if he can recover from his lack of popularity in the polls."

Pub Date: 9/04/97

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