Campaign heating up fast in District 8

Efforts to unseat Morella attract attention, money

May 27, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

As Del. Mark K. Shriver goes door to door in his race for Congress, he sometimes is asked who he's running against.

His response: Connie Morella.

The answer shows confidence but may be premature. Shriver has to win the Sept. 10 Democratic primary before he can run against Rep. Constance A. Morella, the popular Republican who holds Maryland's 8th District congressional seat.

Political observers say the race is by no means a lock for Shriver, a lavishly financed member of the extended Kennedy family.

State Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., a favorite of liberal activists, and Ira Shapiro, a top-level trade negotiator in the Clinton administration, also are mounting aggressive campaigns to win the nomination to oppose Morella.

"If I had to put money on it today, it would be Shriver, but Shriver can't take it for granted," said Marshall Wittmann, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

The contest has already captured the attention of local voters. At several homes where Shriver and Van Hollen knocked on doors in Montgomery County recently, residents were avidly following the race.

"We were just talking about your campaign at lunch," Georgetown University law professor Daniel Ernst of Chevy Chase told Van Hollen.

National attention

The campaign is attracting national interest because of two compelling story lines.

One is that the Democrats must win this seat if they're to gain control of the House of Representatives. The other is Shriver's bid to become the newest star in the Kennedy congressional dynasty - running in the same state where cousin Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is campaigning for governor.

Morella, a liberal Republican who has held the heavily Democratic district for eight terms, faces her toughest contest since her first election in 1986. Needing a gain of six seats in the House, Democrats are counting on a pickup in this suburban Washington district to reach their goal.

State leaders have redrawn the district to make it more challenging for Morella, who squeaked by with 52 percent of the vote two years ago. The ruling Democrats replaced Republican precincts in northern Montgomery with solidly Democratic territory in the east county and Prince George's.

Kennedy scion

Some Democrats believe their best hope of ousting the resilient Morella is Shriver, a two-term delegate, son of Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and nephew of John F. and Robert Kennedy.

The 38-year-old Bethesda lawmaker brings assets to the race besides his name and fund-raising prowess. He is articulate, exceptionally photogenic and a gifted campaigner. When he goes door to door, he is quick to establish a personal connection with voters - asking them about their children, pets or hobbies.

Van Hollen campaigns in a different style, engaging each voter in a discussion of issues. His intense focus reflects his approach in Annapolis, where he has concentrated more on passing bills than fitting in.

Admirers say Van Hollen's serious style is well-suited to the district, one of the nation's most affluent and ethnically diverse. Voters - many of them federal employees - tend to be well-informed.

Those who prefer a lighter touch might gravitate to Shapiro, who frequently leavens his issues-oriented campaigning with self-deprecating humor. People tell him he reminds them of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Al Gore's running mate in 2000. Shapiro insists he is funnier.

Varied resumes

With few ideological differences among the candidates, Democratic voters might focus on accomplishments.

During eight years in Annapolis, Shriver has compiled a credible record as a legislator. He has sponsored successful bills on family issues, early-childhood development and education.

Van Hollen's record is far more extensive. The 12-year legislator has played a pivotal role in debates over gun safety, education and the environment. "Van Hollen is clearly more respected as a legislator," said Wittmann. "Shriver wouldn't be where he is if not for the name, but that's part of the game."

Van Hollen, 43, is convinced that is true. He says that if he wins, pundits might call it an upset but that district voters won't be surprised.

"We've got a huge grass-roots base," he said. "We've got support from community leaders in all the various issue groups. ... These are the activists who will go out door to door and will spread the word about this campaign."

Van Hollen gained favorable local publicity during this year's General Assembly session when an amendment he offered broke an impasse over education funding and brought an extra $80 million back to Montgomery County. He also was the prime sponsor of the tobacco tax increase that helped finance the landmark school aid bill.

Shriver says there is more to his life's work than his legislative record. He noted that before he was elected to the House of Delegates, he ran a program for low-income children in the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore.

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