This time a fiercer fight is expected Governor to face well-financed foe

Rematch for governor

Primary 1998

September 16, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening easily captured his shell-shocked party's gubernatorial nomination yesterday, but now he faces a confident and well-financed Republican opponent anxious to lead a popular uprising against the political culture of Annapolis and Washington.

The long-anticipated rematch between Glendening and Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey -- also a big winner in yesterday's primary -- could produce one of the fiercest gubernatorial races in Maryland history.

Democrats have occupied the governor's mansion without interruption since 1968, and they are determined to continue that record into the 21st century.

The stakes are high: control over billions of dollars worth of state contracts, thousands of jobs, appointments to prestigious boards and commissions and the right to re-draw Maryland's political map after the 2000 census.

Glendening campaigns for a second term with a party divided in Maryland and embarrassed nationally by the difficulties of President Clinton.

Surveying the disarray, Republicans believe victory is at hand.

"If all of us can get through the fog of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky," said GOP consultant Dick Leggitt, "Maryland right now is the best it has been in 40 years for the election of a Republican candidate for governor."

But Democrats are certain Marylanders will not wish to risk the prosperity they say Glendening's policies have generated over the past four years.

"What people will hear over the next 49 days," said Glendening's spokesman, Peter S. Hamm, "are two visions that are so different the turnout in November will be better than people expect."

Even though she has moderated her views, a Sauerbrey victory would certify that Maryland has shifted to the right. Indications of that movement were clear in yesterday's GOP primaries in which two moderate state senators were unseated by conservative challengers.

If she becomes governor, her victory will be seen as proof that Republicans can win even in once-solid Democratic states by appealing to the swing voters in the center, according to Ronald A. Faucheux, publisher of Campaigns & Elections, a national magazine based in Washington.

Glendening, to be sure, will urge voters to see Sauerbrey as a rigidly right-wing zealot in moderate's clothing. A similar approach helped him defeat her by the narrowest of margins in 1994: 5,993 votes out of 1.4 million cast.

But in the four years since then, both candidates -- once polar opposites on the liberal-conservative scale -- have become much more middle-of-the-road, favoring tax cuts, welfare reform, safer streets and more effective schools.

Both sides will have to be careful about the tone they adopt in this campaign, Leggitt says. Voters increasingly are fed up with mud slinging and may walk away from the election altogether if the invective thickens.

"I think you'll see both work real hard not to be overly negative," he said. "The environment created by the back and forth between Clinton and [special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr] is not real receptive for the negative.

"But you could end up there eventually. You have to define your opponent. She's got to define Glendening and Glendening's got to define her. When one starts, the other will follow. It's like nuclear war and you'd can't put the genie back in the bottle."

A difference this time: Sauerbrey has more money to broadcast her message and to defend herself if necessary.

Both camps are promising to run high-level, issue-oriented campaigns -- but both are accusing the other of planning the big smear.

Said Hamm: "Ellen Sauerbrey already has waged a campaign based on personal negative attacks: the consistent comments she's made about the governor's trustworthiness. This is a very honest and decent man who's worked very hard for four years."

Sauerbrey's spokeswoman, Carol L. Hirschberg, responded: "I expect an attempt by him to vilify Ellen and distort her record. Ever since the pension scam became public, Parris has been the most unpopular governor in the United States. Nobody is responsible for that but himself."

Voters will have to weigh the attacks and counter-attacks while they sort through the competing story lines:

The Democratic governor of humble origins who wrote political-science textbooks and became a lover of hands-on policy making.

Or the Republican legislator, party-builder and former biology teacher whose father worked at Sparrows Point.

The early edge goes to Sauerbrey's salesmanship -- her ability to project a dynamic image on television, which is not Glendening's strong suit.

"I think she's done one of the best jobs I've ever seen of that particularly after having gone through a post-election protest," Faucheux said, referring to her claims of voter fraud and her effort to overturn the 1994 election. "In this case she seems to have overcome the sour grapes charge."

Glendening, on the other hand, may be called a turncoat by supporters of Clinton. Just before Starr's explosive report was sent to Congress, Glendening asked Clinton to stay away from one of his fund-raisers.

It was a prudent move, Faucheux said. Glendening's early dip in the polls is traceable to fund-raising excesses -- the most notable of these being a trip to New York aboard a corporate jet sent by a company then competing for a multimillion-dollar health care contract.

The risk, though, is a loss of critical support in Baltimore and Prince George's County, both majority African-American and two of the three jurisdictions he won in 1994.

Black voters have been the most loyal of Clinton's backers -- and they could be offended by Glendening's decision to abandon ship. "Black leadership may not be happy," Faucheux said. "They might endorse him but not push to turn out votes. That kills him."

Pub Date: 9/16/98

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