Election foes must strike a balance Glendening, Sauerbrey need to cite other's flaws but not sound negative

July 26, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Reach out to conservative Democrats in the suburbs, but don't alienate your base of liberal voters in Baltimore and the Washington area.

Publicly write off your leading Democratic opponent, but don't ignore her as the September primary nears.

And paint the leading Republican as an extremist, but don't turn off the voters with too much negativity.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's political nimbleness will be tested as he attempts to do all that, and more, seeking re-election in what is shaping up as a down-to-the-wire race in November, according to interviews with political observers and an analysis of a poll released last week.

The poll highlighted targets of opportunity and vulnerability for the front-runners in both parties leading up to the Sept. 15 primaries.

Glendening, it appears, must sell himself to voters who haven't given him much credit for his accomplishments in office, even as the state enjoys a surging economy.

The leading Republican, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, must make the case for ousting an incumbent in times of plenty, using a campaign that may focus more on Glendening's character than issues.

Democrat Eileen M. Rehrmann and Republican Charles I. Ecker, meanwhile, must work feverishly to make themselves known to voters.

One thing is clear: As they look ahead to the November general election, the front-running Glendening and Sauerbrey find themselves with little room for error.

"With such a narrow margin separating the candidates, the decisions made about strategy, message, use of resources and the political targets become even more critical," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, a Bethesda polling and political consulting firm. "They've got to avoid mistakes and jump on opportunities."

In a hypothetical general election matchup, Glendening holds a 44 percent to 38 percent midsummer lead over Sauerbrey, with 18 percent undecided, according to a poll of 1,204 likely voters conducted earlier this month by Potomac Survey for The Sun and other news organizations.

The poll found that Glendening also leads Rehrmann, his main Democratic rival, by 54 percent to 17 percent, a margin that observers said was solid, but not solid enough to allow the governor to safely declare the race over.

That will force him to spend time and money to ensure a primary victory over Rehrmann, who already has undertaken an advertising campaign attacking his character and record.

Eileen who?

For Rehrmann, the problem remains that only half of likely Maryland voters know her name. And only about a quarter of the electorate knows her well enough to have an impression.

But the number of Democratic voters who remain undecided for the primary election remains high, at 28 percent, giving Rehrmann a chance to gain ground.

The two-term Harford County leader, who has based her campaign on the premise that she is the only Democrat who can beat Sauerbrey, might also find solace in a small nugget from the poll.

Among that small group of voters who know enough of the two women to have formed an impression, Rehrmann holds a five-point lead.

For Sauerbrey, the situation could not be much rosier -- for now.

Enjoying a huge lead in the Republican primary over Ecker, the two-term Howard County executive, she can watch contentedly as Rehrmann tries to bloody Glendening over alleged ethical lapses -- which the poll showed are of concern to nearly half the electorate.

"She can sit back and let the Democrats do all the dirty work," Haller said. "It is a dream political scenario."

Should Glendening and Sauerbrey win the primaries, their general election campaign could have a split personality.

Glendening must find ways to inspire the core Democratic constituencies -- such as organized labor and blacks -- to vote at a time when the electorate is generally content and less likely to go to the polls.

At the same time, he must try to win over a group that is lukewarm -- conservative Democrats, among whom Sauerbrey is leading 41 percent to 39 percent, with 20 percent undecided.

Stressing the positive

To reach out to those largely suburban voters, the governor will likely stress his fight against crime -- which, behind education, is ranked as the second highest priority among Maryland voters, the poll found.

Speaking recently at a South Baltimore union hall, for example, Glendening reminded a group of several hundred tradesmen that he made the tough decision to send a convicted cop-killer to his death by injection, a topic he often leaves out in speeches to more liberal groups.

The governor will have to gingerly move through many such political minefields -- making the case for his pro-business, economic development efforts, while keeping environmental activists and unions energized.

In Montgomery County, he can highlight his opposition to bringing casino-style gambling into the state. But he no doubt will refrain from any talk about the $200 million Baltimore Ravens stadium he helped get built, a project that remains highly unpopular there.

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