Glendening vs. Sauerbrey: all bets are off on outcome

September 27, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

ANYONE WHO says the Nov. 3 election for governor will be a carbon copy of 1994 -- with its photo-finish -- could be disappointed. Times have changed dramatically.

Back in 1994, voters didn't have much knowledge about either nominee. Parris N. Glendening was a little-known Prince George's County executive. Ellen R. Sauerbrey was just a longtime member of the House of Delegates who sought big tax cuts.

We've had four years to get familiar. Now they will be spending millions to tell us more about their priorities -- and pointing out each other's negatives.

For many Marylanders, 1994 was a bad year. The recession that hit the state so hard in 1989 continued to hang on; job losses persisted. People were worried and looking for good news.

Republicans took advantage of this unrest. They swept away four decades of Democratic rule in the U.S. House of Representatives and ended up with a majority of state governorships for the first time since 1970.

Flush times

Fast-forward to 1998. Times have been good. State coffers are flush -- unlike 1994. Most people have jobs and are content. Repeating the themes of 1994 won't work.

Republicans have an extra edge this time: President Clinton's contemptible problems with sex and lies. The burgeoning probes into Democratic campaign fund-raising abuses add to voter disgust.

That could give Ms. Sauerbrey a boost in November.

She also benefits from the surge in new Republican and independent voters. Carroll County has already become a one-party outpost; Harford County seems headed that way, too.

Yet Ms. Sauerbrey cannot win by running solely on a tax-cut theme. It isn't as big a selling point as in 1994. Besides, by election time, Mr. Glendening probably will have his own tax-cut plan.

This time she must show she's capable of governing, that she is not the embittered "Ellen Sourgrapes" of 1994.

A more moderate approach

She's got to persuade people she isn't the hard-edged, unyielding ideologue she appeared to be as a state delegate. She has reached out -- with some success -- to moderates by toning down her positions on social issues.

She seeks to chip away at Mr. Glendening's support: Go after doubting black voters in Baltimore and Prince George's County; pursue votes in the state's Orthodox Jewish communities; go after senior votes with a targeted tax cut.

She may find it increasingly difficult, though, to keep dancing around her positions on such matters as abortion, the environment and gun-control. Abortion, in particular, could become a flash point once Mr. Glendening focuses attention on Ms. Sauerbrey's campaign double-talk -- saying she supports Maryland's pro-choice abortion law even as she gives strong backing to anti-abortion changes in state law.

The governor needs such a controversy to energize his Democratic base and turn women against Ms. Sauerbrey. That's where he had an edge four year ago.

He has to keep touting his achievements and expound a new vision for the next term. But he also will have to demolish the carefully constructed campaign image of Ms. Sauerbrey as a gentler, more compassionate candidate who exudes moderation.

What could harm Mr. Glendening is the trust factor. Ms. Sauerbrey mentioned it twice in her brief primary victory speech on Sept. 15. She will be mentioning it often from now on. People don't feel comfortable with the governor. They remember his early missteps and proclivity for looking like a political animal. The way he recently dumped Mr. Clinton struck even some of his supporters as cold and calculating.

Ms. Sauerbrey wants voters to feel comfortable with her. Mr. Glendening has to make sure this approach doesn't work. He'll lay out her 16-year conservative record in the House of Delegates. He's not going to give up his job without an aggressive fight.

The governor has to accentuate his own positives while clearly delineating her negatives. Five weeks remain for the two candidates to reach voters. Only now are many people starting to focus seriously on this election. They'll have much to digest before they make up their minds, probably in the last days of this campaign.

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

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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