Pragmatic Sauerbrey steers to center

July 26, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

INTRODUCING the "new" Ellen Sauerbrey. Not the tough, doctrinaire conservative who barely missed becoming governor in 1994 (and then loudly complained she had been robbed), but the soft, pragmatic Republican running for vindication this year.

Yes, it's a kinder, gentler Ellen Sauerbrey. She's better financed and more sophisticated. She wants voters to know she has matured, thought about what it would mean to be governor and has moderated her stands accordingly.

Yet underneath this gloss, her bedrock principles remain firm, attached like concrete to a conservative philosophy. The "new" Ms. Sauerbrey offers voters a more vibrant package, but basically the same ingredients.

Her strength is also her greatest weakness. Recent polls show that roughly one-third of voters look upon her favorably, but another third have an unfavorable view. The rest are undecided. She stirs passions.

Bridging the gap

The most recent polls indicate another exceedingly close race with Gov. Parris N. Glendening, just 7 points behind in the Mason-Dixon poll and 6 points behind in the Potomac Survey Research poll. To close that gap, she needs to broaden her support beyond registered Republicans and conservative independents.

That helps explain the new Sauerbrey appeal to centrists. Why else would she choose moderate Richard D. Bennett as her running mate over Paul H. Rappaport, the darling of conservatives?

Why else would she endorse for comptroller Michael Steele, a little-known African American from Prince George's County, infuriating her right-wing backers?

Why is she making well-publicized forays into black communities in Baltimore? She seeks to chip away at Mr. Glendening's base. That also explains why she is focusing on populous Montgomery County, another Glendening stronghold.

The trick is to make Ms. Sauerbrey sound gubernatorial, without the hard edges of 1994.

Tax cut? Yes, she stands by her proposed 24 percent reduction from last time, but now wants this achieved over four years -- not in one massive billion-dollar swipe.

Incentives to attract jobs? Cut red tape first. As for big state grants to firms, she would restrict them to out-of-state companies and smaller businesses. No corporate welfare for big companies.

Aid for Baltimore? To prove she's not hostile, she is stressing her city roots. But she isn't an urban big-spender. Her stress is on revitalizing the city's "merchant class" (small businesses), hardly a large-ticket item.

Tough on crime

Crime? She's a hard-liner who talks of stemming drug use, educating kids to the dangers, finding out which treatment programs are effective and getting urban churches more involved.

Education? She doesn't mention large aid increases to underperforming schools. Instead, she talks of "putting resources in the classroom," i.e., making school management lean. She talks of better testing to identify young kids with learning problems and giving local elected officials audit powers over school spending.

The Sauerbrey approach calls for smaller government that demands greater accountability, slimmed down management and narrowly targeted objectives. It requires fewer taxes and less government regulation.

Less doctrinaire this time. Take school vouchers. She says she has changed her approach, recognizing the reality that the governor's primary role is to strengthen public education, not promote private schools. Instead, she favors tax credits to give parents a choice. A different slant, but the outcome may be the same.

She is trying to look pragmatic. For instance, she flatly opposes casinos, but might approve some slot-machines at race tracks, directing revenues to save the thoroughbred industry. First, though, she says the state should try other options -- better marketing, televising major stakes races and a huge Preakness promotion. There would be "no handouts or grants," but possibly long-term, low-interest loans for track renovations.

It is a new Ellen Sauerbrey in many respects. She understands that she must make amends for the whining "sour grapes" image she created in 1994. She understands she must persuade voters she has matured, that she now understands Governor Sauerbrey would have to be more open-minded, not as dogmatic.

She can win this election. But she must make a convincing case to the bulk of Maryland voters in the political center, the moderates of both parties. Never before has Ms. Sauerbrey zeroed in on them. She has to this time.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor for The Sun.

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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