Sauerbrey is trying for warmer, softer image Republican adopting new campaign style

May 22, 1998|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey finished her extraordinary run for governor four years ago talking not about her historic near-victory, but about her bitter, whisker-thin loss. The enduring nickname: Sour Grapes.

To battle that -- and the "right-wing extremist" label that Gov. Parris N. Glendening slapped on her in 1994 -- Sauerbrey is attempting to remake herself as a more personal campaigner, to reveal what one supporter calls "the softer side of Ellen."

Sauerbrey, 60, has begun sprinkling her stump speeches with references to teaching high school science, caring for her elderly uncle and growing up in a modest Baltimore rowhouse that's now boarded up.

"My dad was a steel worker," she said at Wednesday's debate against GOP rival Charles I. Ecker, the Howard County executive. "There were times that I can remember him being on strike for prolonged periods of time and driving a taxicab to keep food on the table."

Sauerbrey also has given a series of unusually intimate interviews in which she talks even about the struggles she and her husband had in trying to have children -- a disappointment Sauerbrey previously confided mainly to close friends.

This new style of campaigning is not instinctive to Sauerbrey, whose private nature makes her prefer policy talk. But with stubbornly high negative ratings in polls, Sauerbrey's success -- or failure -- in rehabilitating her image could decide the election.

"I think with the general voter, there still is a bit of a bad taste left," said Bruce Mentzer, a Republican political consultant in Towson. "They're going to have to come back and see that they first establish her as a likable person."

Friends say Sauerbrey is anything but the angry, embittered woman she seemed to many voters in the aftermath of the last election, when she blamed her loss on election fraud that she failed to prove in court. But friends also say she has trouble

opening up and conveying empathy in the style, for example, of President Clinton -- a master at connecting with voters, even over television.

"She does feel your pain," says Del. Robert H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican and longtime Sauerbrey friend. "She just won't say it."

Sauerbrey also has never shaken the attacks Glendening made in 1994, when he spent millions of dollars portraying her as a wealthy, right-wing extremist, loyal to Christian conservatives and out of touch with other voters.

"I took about six weeks of heavy-duty pounding as someone who was going to shut down the public schools and pave the Chesapeake Bay," she said in an interview. "I've got to reintroduce myself to a lot of people who haven't a clue who I am."

The real Sauerbrey story, as she has begun telling it, is about a middle-class girl who married her high school sweetheart, became a science teacher, then saw her life plan derail when children didn't complete the picture.

Del. Martha S. Klima, a Baltimore County Republican whose friendship with Sauerbrey goes back to their days as young brides, says they rarely mentioned the Sauerbreys' struggles having children even as Klima bore some.

"Now we talk about Viagra. We talk about AIDS. We talk about everything," Klima said. "But these were different times."

Valuable lesson

With no children to rear, Sauerbrey began to focus her energy on politics. A visit to Germany, where her husband had relatives living on both sides of the Berlin Wall, taught her about the value of freedom. The trip became the crucible of a smaller-government ideology she believes passionately. Almost every other position -- lower taxes, less regulation, gun rights -- comes from that core.

Arguing those positions comes easily to Sauerbrey, who rose through the political ranks first as a party activist and aide, later as a state delegate from Baltimore County. She became GOP leader in the House of Delegates in 1987, but her reluctance to compromise meant she won few battles in the Democrat-controlled legislature.

In 1994, Sauerbrey's pledge to cut taxes 24 percent fueled her upset of Helen Delich Bentley in the GOP primary and her near-victory in the general election. She came within 6,000 votes of becoming Maryland's first Republican governor in three decades.

Despite the urging of aides, she revealed little about herself during the whirlwind campaign, allowing Glendening to fill out the picture.

Compared with Thatcher

Conservative columnist George Will, in an admiring piece during that election season, compared Sauerbrey with the steely and combative Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of Britain. Sauerbrey, wrote Will, "has an ideological clarity and pugnacity comparable to that of the prime minister who, it was said, could not see the status quo without hitting it with her handbag."

This year, Sauerbrey hopes to preserve her ideological clarity while trading the pugnaciousness for warmth.

At a recent speech before a group of dietitians in Towson, Sauerbrey was all smiles. When the slide projector balked, she said: "I was a high school science teacher, and one of those things you had to learn to be any kind of teacher was how to run a movie projector."

A few minutes later, she was deep in policy, explaining her support for medical savings accounts, when one of the dietitians asked about a possible gap in coverage. Would such accounts allow couples to afford the expensive treatments for infertility?

Sauerbrey's answer -- which revealed much about medical savings accounts but nothing about her struggle to have children -- suggested that there are still limits to what she's willing to share.

lTC "It has never been easy," she said on another occasion, "for me to just open up the book of my life."

Pub Date: 5/22/98

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