Local McCain supporters relish the unexpected rise of their candidate

Small group stands against GOP majority

February 18, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Donald E. Murphy cackles as he remembers those lonely gatherings of elected Republican officials supporting Sen. John McCain's bid for the presidential nomination a few months ago.

"It was me, then Wayne Gilchrest came on, Dave Boschert, Carmen Amedori. That's it," says the Baltimore County delegate. "Pretty much everyone else was for Bush, maybe a couple of Forbes people. We were on the island of misfit toys."

A couple of months later, with their candidate fresh from a landslide in the New Hampshire primary and surging in the polls in other primary states, they look like bettors with a ticket on a long shot who's making a move at the head of the stretch.

"I keep telling people that the McCain train has not left the station," says Murphy. "There's still plenty of room on board."

Frostburg Mayor John Bambacus is about the only other elected Republican who can be added to Murphy's list of McCain backers -- 1st District Representative Gilchrest, Anne Arundel County Delegate Boschert and Carroll County Delegate Amedori.

They remain essentially a rump group, up against the state Republican establishment that is supporting George W. Bush. The Texas governor's Maryland campaign is headed by two-time gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey and includes Richard D. Bennett, the state party chairman, as a candidate for a convention delegate.

Gilchrest, the campaign's state chairman, is the only elected Maryland Republican in Washington who is supporting McCain, an Arizona senator.

"A lot of people saw [a McCain victory] as a remote possibility when we came out for him," he says. "We feel really good about it now. What's that they used to say? `I was country when country wasn't cool?' "

Boschert says, "We were kind of the outcasts. Now I feel confident our candidate will be the next president of the United States."

Christopher J. McCabe of Howard County, who heads the state senators for Bush, says he does not regret making his choice almost two years ago.

"I still think [Bush] is the best of the candidates in the Republican primary, that he is still best positioned to unite the party and win back the White House," says McCabe. "But I don't dismiss at all the appeal of Senator McCain. He certainly seems to have connected with the media."

Despite the intense national media attention, first in New Hampshire, now in South Carolina, Republicans in Maryland are essentially flying blind. The only poll in the state -- conducted by the Gonzales/Arscott group -- found Bush well ahead with 52 percent of likely Republican voters to 23 percent for McCain.

But it was taken in January, before the surprising results from New Hampshire put McCain and his war hero story on every newspaper front page and news magazine cover.

"When I started talking about John on the Eastern Shore, most people had never heard of him," says Gilchrest. "But once people got to know him, his support has grown very quickly."

Gilchrest says his support grew out of getting to know McCain when both served on the Naval Academy Board of Visitors. "I think someone like him comes along every 50 years," he says.

Bambacus typifies the kind of anti-establishment Republican backing McCain.

"I've been a Republican all my life, but I've never been a particularly partisan person," says the Frostburg State University political science professor, who supported Democrat Parris N. Glendening -- an old friend -- in the last gubernatorial election.

"I have supported mostly Republicans but I've also supported Democrats," he says. "I have no problem doing that. I look at the person, at their policies."

He says he has often found himself at odds with his party's establishment.

"Unfortunately, the people who control the parties tend to be people who have not governed," he says. "I've always seen myself as a problem solver. Most people in office, Democrat or Republican, tend to be fairly pragmatic."

Bambacus, who was in the state Senate from 1983 to 1991, before returning to Frostburg, says he finds McCain inspirational.

"I was looking for someone like him," he says. "I still deeply believe in the dignity of public service, but as a teacher for 30 years, I have been pretty disappointed at times. You see so many young people who are alienated, cynical about our system. McCain gives me hope."

Bambacus is not surprised at the backing Bush got from the top state Republican officials. "I was disappointed, not surprised," he says. "It's almost like a lock step, let's-jump-on-the-bandwagon situation. I just don't do that."

Amedori says it was her problems with the state Republican establishment that drove her into the McCain camp. She says when she discovered that Bush supporters had no plans to include anyone from Carroll County on the delegation to the Republican convention, she decided to file as a candidate anyway.

"I thought maybe I would run as uncommitted," she says. "Then the McCain campaign called and asked me to run as a McCain delegate, and I agreed. I thought Carroll County should be represented on the delegation, and McCain gave me that opportunity.

"When I look at McCain and Bush, I see it as six of one, half dozen of another. Either one would be fine, and one of them is going to be the nominee and the next president."

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