Ecker begins TV ad campaign early in GOP bid for governor Howard Co. executive targets Sauerbrey

Campaign 1998

January 20, 1998|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, eager to pump up his gubernatorial campaign, yesterday started an early round of television ads -- the first of any candidate for the 1998 election season.

Running ads so far before an election -- nine months in this case -- is rare in Maryland. But it is increasingly common nationwide among candidates facing better-known rivals, such as Ecker's Republican primary opponent, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the 1994 GOP nominee for governor.

For Ecker it also signals a newfound aggressiveness. He has committed $40,000 -- more than one-third of the cash his campaign has on hand -- to eight weeks of ads on cable television stations in the Baltimore and Washington suburbs.

"Most people don't care about the race yet," Ecker acknowledged yesterday. But he said his campaign was ready to make a move. "Now's the time."

Newly hired campaign manager Geyer Wise added, "Chuck hasn't been running for four years like Ellen has, so we have some ground to make up."

Ecker, who was reluctant to hire staff last summer, also has added a media consultant and a top national pollster. A campaign office is likely to open this week, allowing Ecker's campaign to emerge from his Howard County basement.

The ad, in which he doesn't speak, opens with a shot of running sheep. A voice says, "Sometimes the flock can steer you wrong," a reference to the Sauerbrey bandwagon that has collected GOP officials across the state and won her strong support in early polls.

In the next image, Ecker appears on the screen, chatting with apparent supporters as the words "A Republican who can win!" appear across the bottom of the screen.

The advertisement also notes Ecker's 36 years as an educator and seven as Howard County executive. It says Ecker is running for governor "to build a world-class educational system, to bring jobs and businesses to our state."

He has portrayed himself as a moderate, experienced political hand capable of winning in the November general election -- still dominated by Democratic voters despite Sauerbrey's near-miss in 1994.

But first he must beat Sauerbrey in the September primary. Such elections are typically dominated by conservative party loyalists.

In 1994, Sauerbrey's message of lower taxes, lower state spending and harsher prison sentences allowed her to overtake former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley in the Republican primary.

Yesterday, Sauerbrey took exception to the central image of the Ecker ad.

"I don't view Republicans or Maryland voters as a flock of sheep," she said.

Her campaign has raised nearly $1.5 million -- about 10 times more than Ecker's -- but has run no television ads. She has crisscrossed the state collecting contributions and building support among party regulars since her loss to Gov. Parris N. Glendening in 1994.

"My campaign, I think, is right on track," she said. "It's clearly unusual for someone to be out advertising so early."

Don Walter of Creative Media Partners in Northern Virginia produced the ad, which is scheduled to run on CNN and ESPN during the next eight weeks. Targeted counties include Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel, Harford, Montgomery and Frederick.

Cable television ads are less expensive than ads on broadcast channels. But even so, the $40,000 represents a major commitment by Ecker.

By November, the last time campaign finance reports were due, Ecker had raised $142,524 and had $86,550 in the bank. He now has between $80,000 and $100,000 in the bank, he said yesterday.

Ecker has hired Republican pollster Linda DiVall, an occasional analyst on CBS-TV election-night newscasts. Her company, American Viewpoint, based in Alexandria, Va., also has polled for Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Maryland Republican, and the presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.

Wise, the campaign manager, joined Ecker's team Jan. 2. She is a native of Texas, with experience in an attorney general's campaign in Texas and local politics in the Houston area.

Pub Date: 1/20/98

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