Skip primary warmup, gubernatorial candidates set for kickoff

August 30, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

TO HECK with Maryland's primary election: The real race for governor is about to begin.

Now that Eileen M. Rehrmann has disbanded her Democratic campaign, Gov. Parris N. Glendening is targeting the GOP front-runner, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who continues to ignore the pinpricks of Charles I. Ecker in the Republican primary. Instead, she is focusing on her rematch with Mr. Glendening in November.

The battle will be intense and bitter. The two finished less than 6,000 votes apart -- out of 1.4 million cast. The 1994 post-election protests got downright nasty.

Once again, Ms. Sauerbrey seeks to set the campaign agenda. Her pitch for a tax cut for seniors was a brilliant move. Older Marylanders tend to be conservative, and they can be counted on to vote. She put Mr. Glendening nervously on the defensive.

That could be a key ingredient as the Glendening-Sauerbrey teams line up for the kickoff in this 10-week contest.

Each candidate can point to major advantages.

Ms. Sauerbrey starts with a capable, professional campaign apparatus. She's been plotting strategy for four years. She has enough money to nearly match Mr. Glendening in media ads. All this is a vast change from 1994. She is prepared and well-armed.


A mighty war chest

Mr. Glendening has an ample war chest and reams of research on Ms. Sauerbrey's record in the House of Delegates. Unlike 1994 when Mr. Glendening never expected Ms. Sauerbrey to survive the GOP primary, he has done his homework for this rematch.

The good news for Ms. Sauerbrey is that her opponent remains an underappreciated governor who is not fully trusted by a sizable chunk of the electorate. That is a prime target of opportunity.

She is also moderating her positions a tad to appeal to Reagan Democrats and independents. Chipping at the edges of Glendening support may put her over the top this time.

The bad news for the former Baltimore County delegate is that Mr. Glendening retains the enormous powers of incumbency, as witnessed by the $42 million in road projects he announced last week for key counties in the Washington suburbs. Such largess can sway voters.

Even worse for Ms. Sauerbrey, she has lost a critical edge she enjoyed four years ago in Baltimore County. She won that jurisdiction in 1994 with 57 percent of the vote. She beat Mr. Glendening by a margin of 14 percentage points.

But according to a recent Peter Hart poll, she is now losing Baltimore County, receiving only 34 percent of the vote.

Change in climate

What's happening? A substantial bloc of Baltimore County Democrats who sided with Ms. Sauerbrey in 1994 is still angry over her bitter, prolonged court challenge of the results. The popularity of Democratic County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger has unified the county party. Economic times are good; people are happy. They may not like Mr. Glendening but he hasn't angered them enough to switch allegiance.

For Mr. Glendening, the bad news is that people still don't give him high marks for job performance. Were it not for Democrats' hesitation over supporting a staunch conservative such as Ms. Sauerbrey, Mr. Glendening would be in a heap of trouble. His support remains exceptionally thin, with 34 percent of those polled saying they might consider voting to replace him.

Now for Mr. Glendening's good news. The Hart polls, conducted for Maryland racing interests, show a steady decline in Ms. Sauerbrey's statewide backing.

Fifteen months ago, she was leading Mr. Glendening, 43 percent to 39 percent; in November, the two were virtually tied; in May, Ms. Sauerbrey was five points be- hind; in late July, she had dropped 11 points behind, 47 percent to 36 percent.

The numbers for her are probably even worse now, since the last Hart poll was taken before the Rehrmann withdrawal, which should strengthen Mr. Glendening's Democratic base.

Limitations of polls

Polls represent snapshots of sentiment at a given moment. No one can predict how voters will feel 10 weeks from now. Republicans continue to gain from new registrations. Turnout in key jurisdictions -- especially Glendening strongholds in Baltimore City and Prince George's and Montgomery counties -- could play a major role.

Neither side has yet hit on a defining issue. That will be the main challenge for Ms. Sauerbrey and Mr. Glendening as the campaign gathers momentum.

Barry Rascovar is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 8/30/98

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