IT IS A testament to the political acumen of Gov. Parris N. Glendening that his withdrawal last week as a candidate for university system chancellor met with surprise and skepticism.
Surprise, because many felt he could have had the $345,000-a-year job if he wanted it.
Skepticism, because others questioned his motives and predicted his name might resurface.
Glendening has demonstrated a knack for dodging scandals and nipping them in the bud.
Soon after his election in 1994, news broke that Glendening had made himself and top aides eligible for generous pension payouts in Prince George's County, where he had been county executive for 12 years. The governor was forced to announce that he would not accept the extra benefits.
"He was right to do it then; he was right to do it now," said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus. "Occasionally, he has lapses of ethical discernment."
For about a year, word had bubbled that Glendening was interested in being chancellor after his term expires in January 2003.
To cynics, signs were everywhere: Glendening had appointed or reappointed every member of the Board of Regents, the body that will pick the chancellor. Many appointees were close allies. The governor had wanted Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg to stay on the job through next year, 2002, rather than retire in April.
And Glendening's choice as regents chairman, investment manager Nathan A. Chapman Jr., had made himself head of the chancellor search committee. The search was going slower than expected, raising the possibility that Glendening could complete his second term and still take the job.
"This was a botched process from Day One," said Keith Haller, a political pollster. "It was obviously transparent. It was stacking the deck. It was part of a personal plan to become chancellor."
As ethics questions increased, he said, Glendening had no choice but to back down. "I think for his own legacy and the administration's record of accomplishment, he needed to make this decision," Haller said. "His record as governor would not have been judged fairly by historians. It would have impaired his ability to be strong in the final legislative session."
If unflattering stories about Glendening's maneuverings persisted, they could have become issues in next year's election. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, will probably try to succeed him.
"He owes Kathleen big time," said Carol Hirschburg, a Republican media consultant. "My guess is the Kennedys said to him, `Get out of this mess because it is going to hurt Kathleen.'"
In an interview last week, Townsend said "of course" Glendening would have made a good chancellor. But she said she had no preference. "I think I'm going to trust the Board of Regents to make a good choice," she said.
Glendening said Wednesday he was removing his name from consideration to prevent the issue from harming the university system. Earlier in the day, the governor had blamed much of the outcry on "political enemies [who] will always take a chance to take a cheap shot at me."
"The irresponsible press attacks were damaging the university that I love," he said Friday.
The chancellor incident highlights a contradiction that will doubtless haunt the governor in whatever career he chooses next: Although he hasn't lost an election in a quarter-century and is a national leader in the anti-sprawl movement, Glendening remains personally unpopular in many circles in Maryland.
Observers say the former College Park academic has taken no prisoners as he has mastered the authority available to him in the state's executive branch.
"Parris throughout his entire career has been a loner, a lone wolf," said Blair Lee IV, a Montgomery County developer and son of a former governor. "He's a good schemer. This is a political science professor who understands the constitutional and political power of the office, and he squeezes every ounce of it for his own self-interest."
As the chancellor power play unfolded, many saw a chance for revenge. Donors to the university's fund-raising foundation, some of them staunch Republicans, said they would rescind contributions if the governor became chancellor.
"It seems to me that there was more personal animus involved in this than a substantive analysis of what he could bring to the table," said Frostburg Mayor John N. Bambacus, who has known Glendening for 30 years.
Not surprisingly, some believe Glendening is still strategizing. They say his withdrawal could be designed to let emotions subside, and that the governor could still wind up in the chancellor's post.
"I wouldn't count him out," said Sen. Larry E. Haines of Carroll County, minority whip. "I can see the Board of Regents moving forward with what they may define as an exhaustive search for a nominee nationwide, and then come back later and say we haven't been able to find anyone as qualified as the governor. I don't think it's over."