Building bridges for GOP Running mate: Keeping a low-profile, Richard Bennett goes about the task of helping Ellen Sauerbrey connect with more moderate voters.

Campaign 1998

October 23, 1998|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

She's against gun control, he's not. She opposes abortion, he supports the right to it. She's under attack from many environmentalists. He won praise from those groups after sending a man to prison for filling in wetlands.

Can this political marriage be saved?

No problem, say supporters of the Republican State House ticket. After all, gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey and her running mate, Richard D. Bennett, are more alike than different, they say.

As for their differences, supporters say, they only help Sauerbrey's efforts to become Maryland's first Republican governor in three decades. "A balanced ticket represents a broad cross section of views," said Bennett, a former U.S. attorney for Maryland.

While he is far less known -- and far less visible a campaigner -- than his Democratic counterpart, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Bennett steadily goes about the task of helping the conservative Sauerbrey connect with more moderate voters.

He said his role is "to reach out to conservative Democrats and to independents and moderate Republicans. To reach out in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, to swing votes, to aggressively campaign at Metro stops in Montgomery County, which I've been doing, and continue to raise money, which I've been doing."

Critics see Sauerbrey and Bennett as an odd couple.

"It's part of her attempt to portray herself as something less than a right-wing zealot," said Peter B. Krauser, chairman of the state's Democratic Party. "I expect to find them on the 'Jerry Springer' show when they do an episode on couples who have nothing in common but stay together for the sake of the party. They have nothing in common but ambition."

Bennett, 51, is a lawyer, the chief federal prosecutor for Maryland from 1991 to 1993 and, until recently, chief counsel for a congressional committee investigating campaign finance abuses. He's also a longtime presence in Maryland Republican politics, having run unsuccessfully for state Senate and attorney general.

When he headed the Baltimore County GOP, he played a key role in helping moderate Republicans led by then-Rep. Helen Delich Bentley wrest control of the state GOP from the party's right wing.

His admirers praise him as an energetic campaigner and a well-connected fund-raiser, a team player who delivers the Sauerbrey pitch with punch -- and gives on-the-fence voters one more reason to consider Sauerbrey.

"It helps build bridges," Republican consultant Kevin Igoe said. He said the Bennett selection also helped heal a party that was split by the 1994 primary race between Sauerbrey and Bentley.

But Bennett, like many other candidates for lieutenant governor over the years, has struggled for voters' attention. A recent poll for The Sun showed that Bennett is known by 43 percent of the electorate, compared with Townsend's 88 percent name-recognition rating. Overall, fewer than one in four likely voters had an opinion of Bennett.

While Townsend is highly visible in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's campaign, appearing in his television ads, Bennett travels the state in relative obscurity -- in line with the traditional role of many candidates for lieutenant governor over the years.

"On paper, a Bennett candidacy should bring much to the table," pollster Keith Haller said. "So why is it not working? It all revolves around Ellen Sauerbrey being such a dominant political personality. There's been no sunshine radiating on Dick Bennett whatsoever."

But Haller said Bennett is a solid pro who will not hurt the campaign.

"He's obviously a savvy politician, having been through the political wars on Capitol Hill," Haller said. "He'll avoid missteps."

Minimizing conflict

The campaign has sought to minimize the potential for conflict in their positions by concentrating on educational and public spending issues rather than hot-button topics such as abortion and gun control. Sauerbrey supporters say the abortion issue was effectively settled by referendum in 1992. She has worked ** to improve her reputation on environmental issues. She has vowed not to undo the state's gun control laws.

For his part, Bennett might have supported the Brady bill and its establishment of a waiting period for gun purchases, along with a ban on assault weapons. But he can play up an image as a federal crime buster -- even if he did, as U.S. attorney for Maryland in 1992, run afoul of some conservatives by pushing for a prison term for a marine engineer convicted of filling in wetlands in Dorchester County.

When he ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 1994, Bennett waged an aggressive campaign that stressed his plans to enlist the office in the war on crime.

In the end, he said, he and Sauerbrey share a bottom-line view on crime: enforce the laws that are in place and incarcerate dangerous criminals.

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