Schaefer opponent battles obscurity

Willis trails 18% to 62% in state comptroller race

The Maryland Poll

July 24, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

John Who?

Despite his more than seven years as Maryland's secretary of state, that's the response of voters so far to John T. Willis as he wages a primary challenge against Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a new poll shows.

In his bid for re-election, Schaefer leads Willis by a wide margin among the state's Democratic voters, 62 percent to 18 percent.

The Maryland Poll, conducted by Potomac Survey Research for The Sun and The Gazette newspapers, found that Willis is a virtual unknown among all registered voters. Only 13 percent of voters recognize his name, with 4 percent having a favorable impression of him and 3 percent having an unfavorable opinion.

"Willis begins with no name recognition whatsoever," said Keith Haller, president of the Bethesda polling firm that conducted the poll.

As for Schaefer, the former two-term governor's name is recognized by 94 percent of voters, and almost two-thirds have a favorable impression of him. His ratings make him the second-most-popular politician in the state, behind Mayor Martin O'Malley.

"Schaefer is very popular," Haller said. "The only place where he's not as popular is in Montgomery County. He is loved in the Baltimore region."

The poll of 1,200 registered voters was conducted by telephone from July 17 to July 19 and has a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points. The margin of error increases for smaller groups of voters, such as specific jurisdictions or the voters of a single party.

Willis - a longtime ally of Gov. Parris N. Glendening who served as Glendening's chief of staff when he was Prince George's County executive - jumped into the race to challenge Schaefer a few minutes before this month's filing deadline. A longtime state party activist, Willis recently won the endorsements of the Columbia Democratic Club and Battle Grove Democratic Club.

Schaefer leads Willis among both black and white Democrats. The only jurisdiction where Schaefer drops below 50 percent is Montgomery County, where he still leads 48 to 24.

"I'm pleased with the results, I like it, but I never take polls for granted," Schaefer said. "I'd rather have it 92 to 8 than 62 to 18. I've got 20 percent out there undecided, so we've got to start moving."

Willis' campaign manager, Ray McInerney, said the gap was something to be expected.

"Given the fact that he filed only two weeks ago, I'm not surprised at all," McInerney said. With six weeks to the September primary, "we don't have any doubt we can close that gap."

Democrats appear to know so little about Willis that they don't even realize he's a close ally of Glendening, while Schaefer and Glendening have been feuding for years. Schaefer's lead over Willis is greater among those who give Glendening a favorable job rating; it narrows by 12 percentage points among Democrats who disapprove of the job Glendening is doing.

"They associate Schaefer with the present administration more than Willis, because they're never heard of Willis before," said Matthew A. Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "Those who are angry at Schaefer go for Willis. He's anybody but the status quo."

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