Glendening must jump-start limp campaign

October 04, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

SURFERS call it "catching a wave." A football celebrity used to refer to it as "Big Mo." However you phrase it, Ellen Sauerbrey is riding the crest of a surge that shows no sign of subsiding.

It could prove strong enough to make her the first Republican governor in Maryland since Spiro T. Agnew in the 1960s.

Her strategy of chipping away at Gov. Parris N. Glendening's base of Democratic support is working. Her re-crafted public image -- softer, gentler, kinder, more pragmatic -- is working, too. She is dictating campaign issues, and he is responding defensively.

Now GOP strategists have launched a savvy momentum-builder: Dribbling out names of Democratic defectors, starting with former Lt. Gov. Mickey Steinberg. Before the Sauerbrey camp is through, a long list of has-been Democratic pols will be on board. It is a sharp public move, though these defections are more symbolic than significant.

More troubling for Mr. Glendening is the Sauerbrey success in romancing two current Democratic office holders, Harford County Executive Eileen Rehrmann and Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke.

In each case, no endorsement is expected. It is enough that Mr. Schmoke met with Ms. Sauerbrey. The mayor is making peace with the Republican nominee in hopes of salvaging the city's voting strength in the next legislative redistricting and making sure the city's needs aren't totally ignored.

Ms. Rehrmann, too, holds no love for Mr. Glendening. Why else would she play host to Ms. Sauerbrey on a tour of the county? She is all but embracing the Republican.

Wily Willie Don

Then there is that cagey old Democrat, William Donald Schaefer, a heavy favorite for state comptroller. He is a master at covertly linking arms with Republicans -- Helen Bentley, Bob Pascal, George Bush. It's no accident Schaefer loyalists are voicing support for Ms. Sauerbrey. And it is no accident Ms. Sauerbrey came out for school reforms long championed by Superintendent Nancy Grasmick, a Schaefer intimate.

Mr. Glendening is being repaid for earlier slights. For instance, the governor tried to fire Ms. Grasmick after he took office. He snubbed Mr. Schaefer when announcing the return of NFL football to Baltimore. Mr. Schmoke is angry about the governor's recent snub of President Clinton.

Now it is payback time. The mayor, and his guru Larry Gibson, seem content to sit on the fence and not promote Democratic turnout in a key city for the governor. Another Glendening-hater, Prince George's County Executive Wayne Curry, is doing likewise.

Big tent philosophy

Meanwhile, Ms. Sauerbrey has modulated her views just enough to appeal to smatterings of Democrats -- Orthodox Jews, women, black ministers, seniors. She also benefits from big gains in Republican voter registration.

Mr. Glendening has been unable to get voters focused on Sauerbrey's highly suspicious record. Somehow, he must reverse the momentum.

Only last Sunday did the governor admit he's in trouble. Now he wants other Democrats to bail him out. They are doing so, but with little enthusiasm.

Local Democratic candidates sense a Republican tidal wave. They are avoiding any linkage to Mr. Glendening, fearing for their own survival. One traditional Democratic stronghold, eastern Baltimore County, now looks like a lock for Ms. Sauerbrey. That is very bad news for the governor.

Four years ago, Mr. Glendening was caught flat-footed by the Sauerbrey tax-cut proposal. He never recovered, and narrowly avoided defeat.

Ms. Sauerbrey again is setting the agenda, while providing few specifics. There is nothing creative, visionary or magnetic about the Glendening campaign.

Ellen Sauerbrey talks about changing the culture in Annapolis, about tax cuts and integrity; Parris Glendening talks about his love of education and the environment. People yawn when he speaks; they listen when she talks.

Ms. Sauerbrey has succeeded in letting people know she has a heart, that she can smile and sound sincere, that she looks nothing like a conservative zealot.

The governor needs cutting-edge issues. He needs to personalize this campaign and awaken a splintered Democratic Party. He's not adept at improvising or showing his emotions. Yet he must create excitement and enthusiasm among Democratic voters.

It's a stiff challenge, especially for someone who has so much trouble making the human connection to people.

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

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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