They can't talk Ecker out of governor's race

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November 02, 1997|By NORRIS WEST

WHY SHOULDN'T Chuck Ecker run for governor?

Republicans, even those in the Howard County executive's own backyard, have tried to discourage him from challenging Entitlement Ellen.

They warn that he will fail miserably on the campaign trail as a no-name local politician whose country charm will not necessarily play in a statewide race.

Mr. Ecker's supporter-detractors argue that he shouldn't dare challenge Republican opponent Ellen R. Sauerbrey. She's earned the right to challenge Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening unencumbered, they insist, because she came within a few thousand Baltimore votes of becoming governor three years ago.

Read the polls, they say.

Mrs. Sauerbrey's numbers make her unbeatable in a Republican primary and a meteoric force that scares the governor to death.

But assertions that Mrs. Sauerbrey is entitled to the nomination have a familiar ring.

Remember Underdog Ellen?

Remember, her close defeat to Mr. Glendening came after she toppled the Republican heir of 1994, five-term U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley. The political script that year had Mrs. Bentley breezing to the Republican nomination and then giving Democrats their most contentious battle for the governorship in decades.

It was Mrs. Bentley then who supposedly was "unbeatable" among Republicans. She had represented Maryland's 2nd District in Congress for a decade, winning the support of Democrats as well as GOPers.

Naysayers thought it was downright disrespectful for someone to challenge such strong party credentials as Mrs. Bentley's.

Mrs. Sauerbrey would have none of that. She charged forward, )) running an aggressive primary campaign that toppled the party's standard-bearer. Analysts said after the upset that Republicans

had squandered their best chance of winning the governorship, but two months later, Mrs. Sauerbrey nearly caught Mr. Glendening at the finish line.

Mrs. Sauerbrey now wants the respect that she wouldn't concede -- and shouldn't have conceded -- to Mrs. Bentley three years ago.

She wants Mr. Ecker to go away. But last Wednesday, the Howard County executive officially tossed aside caution and announced that he is a GOP candidate for governor.

Good for him.

It cannot be overstated that Mr. Ecker is the underdog. The most recent Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research poll showed him trailing Mrs. Sauerbrey 61 percent to 16 percent among Republican voters in Maryland. He will have to wear out a lot of tire tread and shoe leather to catch up.

Mr. Ecker is confident that he can repeat his triumphant march to the county executive's seat seven years ago. The former school system administrator was practically unknown to Howard voters before he challenged incumbent M. Elizabeth Bobo, but gained name recognition as the campaign progressed, nipping Ms. Bobo by 450 votes at the wire.

Compared to Mrs. Sauerbrey, who has not stopped campaigning since 1994, he is unknown to Maryland voters.

To be sure, winning his party's nomination for governor will be more difficult than defeating Ms. Bobo, but the down-home persona that has stayed with him since his boyhood on a small Uniontown farm will endear him to some voters.

His personal warmth at least will get him in the door. He then will be able to explain his pro-business posture that has made Howard the richest job-growth area in the state.

The executive has not been an imaginative leader, but he has been effective, keeping the county's finances sound during the recession of the early 1990s while maintaining credibility in the human services sector.

Unlike Mrs. Sauerbrey, he can promise voters with pride that he will do for Maryland what he has done as a county government administrator.

The campaign also will give voters a better idea of where each candidate stands on issues. Mrs. Sauerbrey has smoothed the rough edges of her conservatism. That's much different than in 1994, when state GOP party chairman Joyce L. Terhes said, "You'll see very little softening" of her views.

Or, as Mrs. Sauerbrey said, pledging not to become more moderate: "I would suggest that you look at Ronald Reagan, who carried Maryland twice. George Bush, with his moderate message, did not do well."

Mr. Ecker does not, at least thus far, have a compelling issue like eliminating an automobile tax, which boosted the candidacy of Virginia Republican Jim Gilmore. But he could have an ace up his sleeve. At 68, he could appeal to the state's important elderly population and provide a moderate alternative.

Still, there is a 45 percent gap in the most recent polls. Sauerbrey supporters, so confident of her victory, should welcome, not resist, the challenge.

So why discourage Mr. Ecker?

Perhaps they don't want to risk a replay of the 1994 primary.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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