The race for Maryland attorney general, for months a placid contest in the political shadows, has turned into a rumble with some of the nastiness of the more visible campaign for governor.
On one side stands Paul H. Rappaport, the Republican challenger and 1994 lieutenant governor candidate, hurling charges of incompetence in the fight against drugs and deception of the General Assembly about the last gubernatorial election.
On the other stands J. Joseph Curran Jr., the three-term Democratic attorney general, calling Rappaport a liar who can't accept that he and Ellen R. Sauerbrey lost in 1994.
Rappaport, a longtime law enforcement officer who stresses his credentials as a crime fighter, is waging an uphill and underfinanced battle to oust Curran, who has built a reputation as a consumer advocate and a foe of the tobacco industry.
The conservative challenger's effort has been hampered by his late entry into a campaign for which the Republican Party had difficulty recruiting a candidate. It was not until weeks after Sauerbrey decided in May to deny him a second chance and pick the more moderate Richard D. Bennett as her running mate that Rappaport decided to file for the attorney general race.
With no other Republican willing to make the race, the former state police major and Howard County police chief won the GOP primary by default.
After a largely moribund campaign, Rappaport says he has found a politically resonant issue in his revelation last week that drug seizures by Maryland State Police along Interstate 95 declined precipitously last year -- a drop he blames on Curran's handling of a lawsuit alleging that vehicle charges were tinged with racial bias.
Rappaport resumed his offensive yesterday during a candidate's forum in Sykesville, charging that state troopers conduct fewer searches because of fears of being sued.
"They don't think they're getting adequate representation from the attorney general," Rappaport said as Curran watched in stone-faced silence. After the brief presentation, Curran left without acknowledging Rappaport.
Battle of opposites
The attorney general's campaign is as much a race of opposites as the gubernatorial race between Sauerbrey and Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
The 67-year-old Curran, a member of a prominent Northeast Baltimore political family, is a traditional Democrat who was first elected to public office in 1958. Rappaport, 64, is an Ellicott City conservative who shows little sign of having publicly moderated his views -- as Sauerbrey has -- since the 1994 campaign. He has never held a political office.
The rumpled, grandfatherly Curran, who hands out to "the ladies" emery boards with his name on them, comes across as a reliable family lawyer. The lean, stern-eyed Rappaport is every inch the tough cop -- a by-the-book former state trooper.
To most, Curran's recent description of the attorney general's office as "a lawyer's dream job" might seem innocuous. Rappaport said he found it "deeply offensive." At yesterday's forum, Curran described consumer protection as "the fun part of the job." Rappaport seldom mentions the topic, preferring to focus on crime.
To catch Curran, Rappaport would have to overcome the 46 percent to 24 percent lead that the incumbent posted in a poll commissioned by The Sun and three other news organizations early this month. That is a daunting challenge -- especially for a statewide candidate who had raised about $65,000 as of Wednesday -- but not impossible, political analysts say.
Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, said Curran's failure to gain more than 50 percent support despite three terms in statewide office is significant.
"It's a potential sleeper election. If there was a Republican surge statewide, it might make this race close," said Haller, whose firm conducted The Sun's poll. "Typically, undecideds in the late moments of the campaign will not break toward the incumbents."
Kevin Igoe, a Republican political consultant, said Rappaport could benefit from the coattails effect of Sauerbrey's gubernatorial campaign in many areas of the state. But he noted that Bennett, the 1994 Republican nominee, was unable to dislodge Curran in a strongly Republican year despite raising about $700,000.
"It's a long shot," Igoe said. "Basically, it depends upon Paul getting enough money to get his message out."
It appears unlikely that Rappaport will be able to launch such an effort. He said he has difficulty raising money because Sauerbrey's campaign is leaving many Republican donors tapped out. While he expects to put ads on cable TV, he was uncertain whether he would be able to afford a broadcast campaign -- a necessity in a statewide race, according to Igoe.
Curran said he expects his campaign to have raised more than $225,000 -- far less than in 1994, when it was apparent early that he faced a strong challenger. He said he would be able to buy some Baltimore broadcast time but hardly enough to saturate the airwaves.