Politicians seem to be channeling Alfred E. Neuman: What, me run?

March 14, 2010|By Jean Marbella Jean.MARBELLA @baltsun.com

It is the political equivalent of a slow striptease. Maybe the gloves come off first, one tantalizing finger at a time, or a garter will unmoor a stocking. Every article of clothing will be peeled off with a wait-for-it smile, until finally, only one bit of covering remains:

The hat that gets tossed in the ring.

For whatever reason, this election year has drawn a raft of undeclared candidates who have delayed filing for office even as they are running in plain sight.

They have Web sites with 2010 banners, bios, issue statements, Paypal-accepting contribution links and photos of photo ops - honestly, who willingly poses with Mr. Chicken to promote the swine flu vaccine unless they're running for something? They have campaign funds and, most of all, they have launched that surest sign of an impending candidacy: the "listening tour."

As Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a renowned translator of politicalspeak, tells me, "What they hear when they're on a listening tour is that they should run."

I tried to find out what Kevin Kamenetz is hearing on the listening tour that he began last year, but perhaps what the Baltimore County councilman is listening to doesn't include his voice mails.

Kamenetz is one of the "expecteds" for the county executive race, which promises to be a lively contest with the departure of the term-limited Jim Smith leaving an open seat. But if you go by who has filed, there's zero interest - no one is officially in, although unofficially it's drawn a slate that includes Councilman Joe Bartenfelder and Del. Pat McDonough.

Neither, though, is quite as aggressively not-yet-running as Kamenetz, who recently has accepted two endorsements for the race that he hasn't yet entered. Between that, his $1.1 million campaign chest and a listening tour that has taken him beyond the boundaries of his northwest district, the suspense of this particular will-he-or-won't-he mystery isn't going to kill anyone.

Of course, the big Godot this year is former Gov. Bob Ehrlich, who is expected to announce in a couple of weeks if he'll seek a rematch against Gov. Martin O'Malley, who ousted him from office in 2006. The path is clearing for Ehrlich, as one by one the other GOP candidates have bowed out: Mike Pappas withdrew last year and threw his support to Larry Hogan, who was on an exploratory run as a sort of placeholder for Ehrlich. But then Hogan halted his explorations last month, saying, run, Bob, run.

Ehrlich has said he'll announce one way or the other in a couple of weeks, although neither he nor O'Malley have let the lack of a formal filing delay the campaignlike sniping that's been under way for months.

There are advantages to running unofficially for a while, says Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia political prognosticator.

"Once you declare, you have to run a full-out campaign, and it's expensive," Sabato says. "If you don't declare, you've got a built-in excuse not to do anything. If someone says, 'Why don't you take a stance on this,' you can say, 'I'm not running.' "

There's also the thrill of the pursuit - ever notice how much more attractive someone is during the chase than after? "When you come into a race," Sabato says, "you're just like everyone else."

Still, timing is key. You can hold out, but only for so long, says Jamieson, a professor at Penn's Annenberg School for Communication.

"At a certain point, you just appear coy," Jamieson says. "You become uninteresting."

Ehrlich might have a practical reason for holding out - he hosts a weekly radio show that he would have to give up once he's officially in the race unless his opponent is given equal air time. But other than for fundraising purposes, there might be no need to rush into an official run, except to satisfy political junkies who need a constant stream of who's-in, -out, -up and -down.

That's particularly true for a race like Baltimore County executive, according to Sabato.

"Especially for a local office, it is early," he says. "Most voters don't even think about an election until a couple days before."

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