A NEW YEAR usually brings optimism for what lies ahead. Certainly that's true in Maryland politics, where both Democrats and Republicans view 1998 as their kind of election season.
But only one of them will have their dreams come true.
Here's why Democrats start the year with enthusiasm:
A highly popular U.S. senator, Barbara A. Mikulski, is expected to roll up a landslide victory.
Two longtime state officials, Attorney General Joseph Curran Jr. and Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, should coast to victory.
Democrats have a lock on a majority of General Assembly seats.
And Gov. Parris N. Glendening enjoys an incumbent's advantage in his quest for a second term.
With gobs of surplus cash to disburse, the governor should enjoy a good legislative session. That $260 million surplus, added to upbeat revenue projections, should let him satisfy most lawmakers and interest groups, pouring lots of money into a voter's favorite, education, and possibly leaving room for a politician's best friend, an election-year tax cut.
Thus, Mr. Glendening would emerge in the spring with a solid but unspectacular four-year record in which he made good on his 1994 campaign promises to focus on improving education, the environment, public safety and economic development.
With Maryland enjoying its best economic times in a decade, voters may be reluctant to toss out Democrats who've been running things. A solid period of growth makes incumbents tough to beat.
Democrats are in great financial shape for the campaign. Mr. Glendening should outspend his Republican foe by several million dollars, and legislative leaders intend to pump plenty of cash into the campaigns of Democratic lawmakers under siege.
The governor also has worked assiduously to solidify his main constituencies -- African Americans and labor unions (especially public employees and teachers). By stressing core suburban issues -- education, safety and jobs -- the governor hopes to improve his totals in many populous counties.
Finally, there's Democrats' alarm about turning the Governor's Mansion over to a hard-core Republican reactionary. That's how many party leaders view Ellen R. Sauerbrey, based on what they heard from her in 1994 and what they remember of her conservative rhetoric when she served in the House of Delegates.
Mr. Glendening is not wildly popular. He squeaked through in 1994. Polls still show weakness. But his aides feel the governor's record, plus lack of an acceptable alternative, will overcome voter reluctance to embrace him.
Republicans, though, view the local political universe from a totally different perspective:
They see an unpopular governor stumbling into more ethics quagmires that make him extremely vulnerable.
They see a GOP candidate, Ms. Sauerbrey, who has moderated her public pronouncements and sounds more gubernatorial than she did four years ago.
They see increased GOP support in the fastest-growing suburbs. And they see rock-solid backing for Ms. Sauerbrey in those populous counties and rural areas, compared with Mr. Glendening's base support centered in a handful of subdivisions.
To bolster their case, Republicans tout a late-November Peter Hart poll showing only 21 percent of voters standing by Mr. Glendening, with 31 percent willing to consider someone else and 31 percent opposed. The recent ethics controversy involving state Sen. Larry Young only adds to Republicans' sense that they could win the top race this year.
In Ms. Sauerbrey, they have a more polished and inclusive candidate than in 1994. She won't lack for campaign money this time. Her call for a sweeping income-tax cut no longer looks like a loony idea -- Democrats embraced a slimmed-down version last year.
Republicans see a golden opportunity to transform the political landscape in Maryland. If Ms. Sauerbrey leads a successful ''throw the bums out'' crusade, Republicans could make major gains in the General Assembly and in local races. A true two-party system would emerge.
Which view of reality is right? Will this mark a turning point in Maryland history or an extension of Democratic dominance?
Will a vibrant economy help Democratic incumbents? Or will ethics flaps aid Republicans?
It could become the hardest-fought and most competitive state election campaign in a long time.
Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.
Pub Date: 1/04/98