Candidates cut to the chase Analysis: As their primary foes fade, Parris Glendening and Ellen Sauerbrey settle down to exchanging jabs.

August 23, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

With her promise of a tax break for the highly motivated senior citizens' bloc, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey made a bold bid last week to set the agenda for Maryland's general election campaign -- throwing it into high gear three weeks early.

Primary challenges are failing in both parties, leaving the results of those Sept. 15 contests all but foregone.

Sauerbrey and her likely Democratic gubernatorial opponent, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, are already campaigning aggressively against each other.

Yesterday, the two main contenders campaigned within shouting distance of each other, delivering one of the campaign's sharpest exchanges.

Glendening made his remarks at a community picnic in Glenarden, a Prince George's County community.

Sauerbrey's responses came at Bayfest in North Beach, Calvert County.

While reminding his audience of his administration's financial assistance to Prince George's, Glendening warned that Sauerbrey and her agents would try to buy the election.

"What unmitigated gall from the $6 million man!" she replied.

Her response referred to the 1994 campaign, when Glendening held a decided fund-raising edge over his Republican opponent, raising $5.2 million for that race.

Sauerbrey raised $700,000 in private funds in 1994 and collected $1.1 million in public funds for a total of $1.8 million.

Recent official reports show that Glendening has raised $3.9 million for this year's contest, compared with $3 million for Sauerbrey.

Addressing an almost entirely African-American audience, the governor also accused Sauerbrey of saying that Robert M. Bell, an African-American who is chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, was "not qualified" for that post. Glendening appointed Bell in 1996.

"Absolutely untrue," said Sauerbrey. "He's eminently qualified, of course.

"What I said was that he was too often the one judge on the Court of Appeals who voted against affirming a death penalty or other tough sentence."

Despite the earlier-than-expected onset of head-to-head electioneering, both sides have been spoiling for a fight since Glendening won by 5,993 votes out of 1.4 million cast four years ago.

"We never had any doubt that we'd have a clear and overwhelming primary victory," said Peter S. Hamm, Glendening's spokesman.

"But we've been preparing all along for our debate with Ellen Sauerbrey."

Preparing, certainly, but whether the Glendening forces were ready for her tax-cut proposal is another question.

"She's turned things topsy-turvy," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, a polling firm in Bethesda.

"The Democrats are back on their heels. It's left them struggling to find a response."

Haller said a proposal of this sort has the potential to separate the candidates in a fundamental way. It could become a far more powerful issue, for example, than whether to put slot machines at race tracks. On that one, the candidates appear to have few major differences.

Something that puts money in people's pockets, then, is a good bet to seize the initiative.

"We're apt to be facing such a razor-thin margin in this race that moving 10 or 15 percent of a critical constituency like seniors can dictate the outcome," he said.

Counting voters age 55 and older -- those who are looking to retire soon as well as current pensioners -- the Sauerbrey proposal touches as much as a third of the likely voters, Haller estimated.

The Republican said she hopes such an easing of the tax burden would stop an exodus of seniors to states where they fare better with tax collectors.

Even before the tax-cut idea, the Glendening-Sauerbrey rematch seemed likely to make the 1998 campaign memorable.

It could provide a test of voters' tolerance for political campaign language and a textbook example of modern media campaigns because both sides will have sufficient cash to get their messages on television.

Both candidates enter the final weeks with high negative ratings from Maryland voters: Will the commercials focus on the other candidate's problems? Or will they promote ideas for better government? Or both?

The Glendening forces may mount their television assault even before the Sept. 15 primary, a measure of their confidence in the strength of his record and their calculation that Marylanders, once they see what has been accomplished, will want to stay the Glendening course.

Early Glendening TV may also be recognition that Sauerbrey is bringing the fight to him in ways that can't be ignored.

She, too, is planning to be on Baltimore area channels before the primary, according to Jim Dornan, the Sauerbrey campaign spokesman.

Both sides insist they will attempt to avoid the negative.

But observers say the underlying dynamics of this race -- two candidates with high negatives -- could lead to exchanges that resemble mudslinging. Yesterday's exchange suggests the tone could be, at the very least, testy.

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