Will voters look for fresh horses?

November 02, 1997|By Barry Rascovar

IF CHUCK Ecker and Eileen Rehrmann were running for re-election as county executive in Howard and Harford counties, respectively, they would be considered prohibitive favorites.

But they are limited by law to two terms. So these two successful politicians instead are running for governor -- not as favorites but decided underdogs.

Republican Ecker officially plunged into the GOP race this past week; Democrat Rehrmann did so the week before. He has by far the more difficult challenge.

For state Republicans -- wandering in the gubernatorial wilderness for 30 years -- 1998 looks like a breakthrough. But not for Charles I. Ecker. GOP leaders are rallying around Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who came within 6,000 votes of becoming governor in 1994.

Polls apart

Ms. Sauerbrey has never stopped running. She is lionized by party conservatives who swear she was robbed through ballot-box chicanery. Other Republicans feel she deserves a second shot.

Polls show her far ahead of Mr. Ecker. He has his work cut out.

It is not impossible. Mr. Ecker pulled off a shocker to become Howard County's first elected Republican executive in 1990. Ms. Sauerbrey won the 1994 GOP nomination in a huge upset. Both Harry R. Hughes (Democratic primary, 1978) and socialite Louise Gore (Republican primary, 1974) stunned heavy favorites.

Mr. Ecker tried last week to draw distinctions between himself and Ms. Sauerbrey: She lacks compassion, she's trying to win with the same tired themes, she has no management experience, she can't work with Democrats.

He must find issues where differences are compelling. Perhaps education, where Mr. Ecker will propose a new funding formula for $2 billion in state aid. Ms. Sauerbrey is a fan of reducing future state spending, not increasing it.

They differ on job development, too. Ms. Sauerbrey believes you attract businesses by sharply lowering the state income tax. Republican Gov. Christine Whitman has tried that in New Jersey; now she is fighting for survival in Tuesday's election. By contrast, Mr. Ecker has attracted businesses to Howard through traditional means.

His biggest advantage, though, could be Ms. Sauerbrey's low popularity ratings among registered Democrats. Mr. Ecker must persuade Republicans Ms. Sauerbrey will take the party down the road to defeat, continuing the Democrats' hegemony.

He contends that in a general election, where Republicans are outnumbered 2-1, you cannot win with a staunch conservative.

Money matters

Yet, he starts his campaign far behind, with little organization or cash. But money may not be a decisive factor. With all the campaign financing abuses being aired in Washington, any candidate who raises huge sums may be suspect.

That could help Eileen Rehrmann, thanks to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's habit of squeezing special-interest groups for donations. Voters might view this as trying to buy the election.

Her early literature takes subtle digs at the governor. She reminds voters she served as a state legislator; many of the governor's problems stem from his lack of General Assembly experience.

She touts her ''sound financial management,'' alluding to the $100 million debt Mr. Glendening left behind in Prince George's County. She trumpets national recognition for Harford's economic development efforts.

But where is the cutting-edge issue? She is hoping that by the end of the General Assembly session in mid-April, a few hot-button controversies will emerge.

Ms. Rehrmann is raising a surprisingly large amount of money for a long shot. She pulled off a big coup in winning the active backing of Larry S. Gibson, one of the state's top political strategists and campaign organizers.

But her biggest edge could be the mirror image of what Mr. Ecker is counting on: a growing sense of disaster among Democratic politicians of a Glendening-Sauerbrey match-up. Mr. Glendening just isn't wildly popular.

Senate President Mike Miller is running scared, alarmed that a Sauerbrey triumph in many suburbs could cost Democrats control of the Senate. Some leading Democrats share Mr. Miller's concern, and blame Mr. Glendening.

But only one of the two scenarios -- Mr. Ecker's vision of Republicans flocking to him in fear of the GOP getting clobbered with Ms. Sauerbrey as the nominee and Ms. Rehrmann's picture of a Democratic debacle under Mr. Glendening -- can come true.

If either of these long-shot contenders can make a persuasive case for their doom-and-gloom scenario, we could have a major surprise next Sept. 15. But it would take a tremendous amount of hard work -- and considerable good fortune -- for that to happen.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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