Sauerbrey's support base stays firm Moderate moves don't deter conservatives

July 02, 1998|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Bob Trivane likes antique guns, fancy leather holsters and Ellen R. Sauerbrey. He is so smitten with the Republican that he put a sign in his yard and handed out pamphlets at polling places in 1994. He plans to do the same this year.

Even as Sauerbrey reaches out to moderate voters -- and avoids such issues as abortion and gun rights that might alienate them -- conservative supporters such as Trivane say they remain staunchly behind her campaign for governor.

Some grimaced last month when Sauerbrey picked moderate Richard D. Bennett, who favors abortion rights and gun control, as her running mate. But interviews around the state suggest conservatives have trimmed their expectations in hopes of finally electing a like-minded governor.

"If she gets into office, I see her as 'no new gun laws,' " Trivane says to the staccato serenade of gunfire at a Fort Meade range. The Edgewater Republican, who sells cowboy gear at gun shows and shoots around the state, doesn't think Sauerbrey can -- or will even try -- to repeal gun control laws already on the books.

But he figures she is far better than the alternatives, particularly Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who signed a new law limiting gun buyers to one purchase a month and tried to expand public funding for abortion.

Anti-abortion activist Doug Stiegler uses similar logic in explaining conservatives' acceptance of Bennett -- who replaced Sauerbrey's 1994 running mate, Paul H. Rappaport, a favorite of grass-roots activists.

"The more people look at the realities of politics, the more they'll understand that pick," says Stiegler, executive director of the Family Protection Lobby, which opposes abortion, homosexuality and gambling. "If you've gone down a long staircase, the only way back up is one step at a time."

Career built on confrontation

The irony of such pragmatism is that Sauerbrey, a former GOP leader in the House of Delegates, built her political career as a confrontational conservative.

In the State House, she clashed with Republicans she deemed (( too moderate -- and too willing to cut deals with ruling Democrats. In the 1994 GOP primary, Sauerbrey blasted former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley -- a longtime Bennett ally -- for not being conservative enough.

These tactics helped Sauerbrey emerge as a leading Republican legislator and brought her to within 6,000 votes of becoming governor, thanks in part to the work of conservative volunteers inspired by her opposition to abortion and gun control.

Sauerbrey is the front-runner to be the GOP nominee again this year. She faces a primary challenge from Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a moderate unlikely to lure away her conservative backers.

"She earned our support in the past, in the legislature," says Tom Sheahen, head of the political action committee for Pro-Life Maryland. Hundreds of anti-abortion volunteers, he says, are ready to go to work for Sauerbrey. "This is the most enthusiastic we've been in a long, long time."

That is true, he says, even though Sauerbrey has made a studied effort to play down abortion while on the campaign trail.

She favors banning a controversial late-term abortion procedure, but otherwise Sauerbrey pledges to uphold current law, saying voters settled the issue in the 1992 referendum supporting abortion rights.

On guns, she says even less. And few gun owners seem to expect anything more than a halt to new gun-control laws.

The reason for her caution is simple: Despite the growing power of conservatives in Maryland, polls show gun control and abortion rights generally have broad statewide support.

Conservative activists "are not the voters who are going to put her over the top in Maryland," said pollster Del Ali of Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research. "I think Ellen Sauerbrey probably needs to be avoiding those people like the plague after the primary -- without offending them."

Sauerbrey's shift -- trading confrontation for moderation -- has been aided by a generation of defeat for abortion opponents and gun-rights activists in Maryland. Many activists say she is the first statewide candidate to speak their language; they are forgiving if she now speaks it less often.

"At this point, we have to take whatever steps we can," says anti-abortion activist the Rev. Paul Schenck of Bishop Cummins Memorial Church in Catonsville. "Any movement toward recapturing the sanctity of human life is a welcome movement."

Frederick gun owner Larry Jones says simply, "She supports us, and we support her."

Many conservative activists also like the parts of Sauerbrey's agenda that she is focusing on -- lower taxes, smaller government, tougher crime policies, a better business climate and a back-to-basics approach in schools.

On virtually every issue, they prefer Sauerbrey's position to Glendening's.

'What choice is there?'

"For the pro-life, conservative contingent, what choice is there?" says Kathy Szeliga, a Baltimore member of the conservative Concerned Women for America. "The politically active pro-life Republicans are going to go to the polls."

Westminster gun activist David Reazin didn't get much involved in statewide politics until he met Sauerbrey in 1994. Now, as head of the political action committee for the Deep Run Rifle & Revolver Club, he organizes shooting events to raise money for her campaign.

"It was awfully close the last time," says Reazin, who's eager for a second shot at electing Sauerbrey. "We never thought the Republicans had much of a chance to win the governorship."

Pub Date: 7/02/98

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