Glendening lead over Sauerbrey evaporates New poll indicates virtual dead heat if vote were today

Campaign 1998

September 09, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron and C. Fraser Smith | Thomas W. Waldron and C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's slim lead over Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey has evaporated in the past six weeks and the two are locked in a virtual dead heat, a new poll shows.

If the Nov. 3 general election were held today, Glendening would win 45 percent of the vote to Sauerbrey's 44.4 percent, according to the poll of likely voters conducted for The Sun and other news organizations.

A similar poll in mid-July found that Glendening was leading Sauerbrey 44 percent to 38 percent among voters who had made up their minds.

"The race has tightened considerably," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, the Bethesda-based firm that took the poll.

"It has to be the closest race for governor in America. It's way too close to call."

In closing the gap on Glendening, Sauerbrey made notable gains among African-Americans and those over 65, with some elderly voters apparently attracted by her recent proposal to cut state income taxes for retirees.

The poll, which was conducted Sept. 3 through Monday, also found: Less than a week before Tuesday's Democratic and Republican primaries, Glendening and Sauerbrey maintain formidable leads over challengers within their own parties.

In the race for Maryland comptroller, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer holds a 26-point lead over his best-known Democratic challenger and appears to be a strong favorite in the general election as well.

While 56 percent of Maryland voters approve of the job President Clinton is doing in office, a slim majority said he should resign or face impeachment if it is shown that he obstructed justice in the Monica Lewinsky matter.

If Glendening and Sauerbrey prevail as expected Tuesday, voters will face a rematch of the 1994 general election, which Glendening won by fewer than 6,000 votes cast out of 1.4 million statewide.

The political landscape has been altered considerably since the July poll, and some of the changes may have helped erase Glendening's lead.

Haller said a slight downturn in the economy, the sharp criticism Glendening has absorbed from both Democratic and Republican challengers and the "looming Clinton-Lewinsky" matter may all have played a role in the Sauerbrey surge.

Another important factor, the poll suggested, is Sauerbrey's tax cut proposal for retirees. She would exempt $33,000 of an individual's retirement income -- up from the current $15,900.

The poll suggested that seniors are listening: In the earlier sample, Glendening led Sauerbrey among respondents 65 or older by a margin of 52 to 37 percent. That 15-point lead fell to 3 points in this poll -- 45 percent to 42 percent.

"The tax cut proposal is a potent weapon with older voters," Haller said.

One of them is Ronald Fansler, 55, a retired state trooper. A Democrat, he says he will vote for Sauerbrey because of the tax issue and his distrust of Glendening.

"Any tax break at all for retirees would benefit my wife and myself," he said. "I just built a house in Berlin. If I had to do it again, I probably would do it in Delaware. The taxes are much much lower in Delaware."

But the tax proposal is turning off voters such as Dennis Flanigan, a retired physicist who lives in Mount Washington and a Glendening backer.

"If it does anything, it would be a negative," said Flanigan, 60. "I consider it trying to appeal to one particular group, without necessarily thinking about the good of the state."

Sauerbrey, who has made more of an effort during this campaign to reach out to black voters than she did in 1994, may be having some success. The poll found that she is favored by 19 percent of African-American voters, up from 11 percent in July.

At this point, the poll suggests that Clinton's difficulties could hurt Glendening in November.

Fourteen percent of voters surveyed said they are more likely to vote because of the Lewinsky matter. Among that group, Sauerbrey was the choice for governor by more than 2 to 1.

"Clinton-Lewinsky could be a major factor ultimately," pollster Haller said, "because it's re-energizing the Republican, conservative voter -- which is a more likely Sauerbrey voter."

The polling may also explain why Glendening canceled a plan to bring Clinton to Maryland next month to raise money for the governor's re-election effort. Seventeen percent of respondents -- including one out of 10 Democrats -- said they would be less likely to vote for Glendening if Clinton campaigned here.

Stepping abruptly away from Clinton, Glendening skipped the president's appearance yesterday in Montgomery County and said over the weekend that Clinton had failed to provide a proper role model for America's youth.

Glendening aides shrugged off the poll results yesterday. "Polls go up and go down," said campaign spokesman Peter S. Hamm. He said the governor would continue to highlight his and Sauerbrey's records on issues such as the environment and education.

Sauerbrey, meanwhile, called the poll "happy news."

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