POLITICS IS perhaps the world's most difficult business.
Most politicians want to please above all else. They have a profound psychological need to be liked. Although they hunger for approval and praise, as do most of us, they seem to need it more than the rest of us.
Yet everything they say or do is likely to anger or alienate someone, somewhere.
Observing the candidates during the primary campaigns for mayor of Annapolis has been fascinating. The serious contenders for the Democratic and Republican nominations offer study of contrasts in how to gather support for their campaigns.
Dennis M. Callahan, the former mayor who now admits he loved to pick political fights with members of the council just for the sport of it, has decided that the way to regain office is to curb his combative instincts and listen to the wishes of voters.
His position on building a conference center clearly reflects this change in heart. He is dead set against it in any form.
"Nobody wants it," he said during an interview. Apparently, from knocking on doors and talking to city residents, Mr. Callahan believes that a majority of voters don't support a conference center.
Yet, he acknowledges that finding jobs for Annapolis' poorly educated and low-skilled residents is one of the city's major challenges and that a conference center might raise the number of jobs in the city's growing hospitality industry.
Mr. Callahan doesn't want to take a position that might offend those people who are upset with the hordes of tourists and the congestion and commotion the visitors cause.
His Democratic opponent, Ward 5 Alderman Carl O. Snowden, acknowledges he supports building the center and financing it with tax dollars. But he doesn't loudly advertise this position.
He would much rather tell you about his thoughts on improving education in Annapolis, which is a county -- not city -- responsibility.
Calling for moving high school graduations back to the city and pressuring the county Board of Education to provide more resources for city schools is politically less risky than his position on the conference center.
On the Republican side, leading candidates M. Theresa DeGraff and Dean L. Johnson practice divergent political styles.
Ms. DeGraff stakes out her positions very clearly, usually in language that is sure to offend someone. Ms. DeGraff seems genuinely puzzled when people tell her that her brand of politics is divisive.
During an interview, she took pride in her legislation that streamlined the historic architectural review process and made it easier for residents in the historic districts to fix up their houses without being entangled in red tape. Ms. DeGraff couldn't resist getting a dig in at opponents of her bill.
"These self-appointed keepers of the city feel they know what it is best for our town," she said, sarcastically dismissing groups that have substantially improved the city's civic life.
Mr. Johnson, whose nature is to find common ground with as many people as possible, loves to straddle issues. While he believes a conference center should be built, he says it should not be financed with tax dollars.
By taking such a position, Mr. Johnson can't be categorized as a conference center opponent. In reality, however, such a position leaves little likelihood of a conference center's being built in Annapolis. Most municipal conference or convention halls are publicly financed, just like football and baseball stadiums.
Even though the four major candidates for mayor are highly competent public officials with substantial records of accomplishment, in the final analysis, their carefully crafted positions actually may not be that important to voters.
Annapolis is, at heart, still a small town. With 35,000 people, city politics has an intimacy that can't be found in Baltimore City or Montgomery County.
These candidates are not abstractions on a television screen but people who may have been on the PTA, coached Little League or led a neighborhood battle against a bar being built down the block.
Voters can run into the mayor or an alderman at the drug store or a carryout. They see these public officials in private moments such as when they put out their garbage cans or walk their dogs.
Sometimes, the failure to pick up dog droppings may be more important that a candidate's position on the conference center.
To outsiders, this personalized style of politics can seem petty, yet this is the way Annapolis works.
In many ways all politicians walk on eggshells, taking careful steps so they don't offend any voters. One wrong step or statement and they may end up with egg all over themselves.
So far this election, none of the Annapolis candidates has slipped. They have all done a good job of maintaining their balance on the eve of Tuesday's primary.
But some time Tuesday evening, these candidates will find out if the voters truly love them.
Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.
Pub Date: 9/14/97