Psst! Only 38 Months Till the Gubernatorial Primary


Republicans are gleeful, and Democrats are getting more depressed by the month. Come 1994, the next governor of Maryland could be a Republican. The muddled Democratic picture is turning messier all the time. That cheers Republicans no end.

The cast of Democratic characters isn't impressive. All have flaws. Not one contender even brings with him a simple, down-to-earth name voters can relate to.

There's Parris N. Glendening; Winfield M. "Winnie" Kelly Jr.; Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.; J. Joseph Curran Jr.; Melvin A. "Mickey" Steinberg, and O. James Lighthizer.

Stacked up against Parris and Winnie and Thomas V. Mike and J. Joseph and Melvin A. and O. James are Republicans whose names exude an easy-go confidence: Bobby, Bill, Roger and Jack, as in Robert R. Neall, William S. Shepard, Roger Hayden and John A. Cade.

But Democrats have far worse problems to overcome than their elitist names.

* Parris Glendening may have been Prince George's County executive for the past nine years but no one outside the county knows who he is. Besides, he's totally colorless (except for his surname) and can bore an audience with his professorial lectures on the intricacies of government. He's also a favorite of Governor Schaefer. That could be a curse as well as a blessing.

* Winnie Kelly hasn't won elective office in 17 years and serves the Schaefer government in a figurehead post -- secretary of state. He, too, is from Prince George's and rates a zero on the name-recognition scale when he ventures from that county. He remains loyal to the governor, for whatever good that brings him politically.

* Mike Miller is a third candidate from Prince George's, which threatens to shatter that county's voting strength. He's president of the Senate, but not many know that beyond Annapolis. The governor dislikes him intensely, which actually could win him sympathy.

* Mickey Steinberg is not from Prince George's, a definite plus. But he and Mr. Miller will dilute strength among influential senators, since Mr. Steinberg used to run the Senate and is still a favorite. He has become Governor Schaefer's favorite whipping boy, which will cost him financial support from Schaefer loyalists. At the same time, Mr. Steinberg's continuing presence in the administration as lieutenant governor links him in the public's eye with an increasingly unpopular governor.

* Joe Curran, too, has run afoul of Mr. Schaefer, which will deprive him of important backing. He hails from Baltimore, a fact that could prove the kiss of death in rural areas. He also has angered segments of the business community in his five years as attorney general. He's the nice-guy candidate, but so laid-back and indecisive he might not impress many non-city voters.

* Jim Lighthizer is another unknown except in his home county of Anne Arundel. He's now transportation secretary, which means he'll be blamed for the large hikes in motor-vehicle fees that just took place and the nickel or dime increase in the gasoline tax he is trying to push through the legislature. Raising taxes is no way to run for governor.

What could do in any of the Democrats is the public's distress over the performance of the current Democratic governor, Mr. Schaefer. The more Mr. Schaefer fumes and fusses in public, the more he rails at the legislature, the more he draws public attention to his lavish public spending projects (the mansion, the stadium, the light-rail line), the more fed-up voters become with Democrats in general and any candidate tied to Mr. Schaefer.

No wonder Republicans are smiling. Their best hope, Bobby Neall, has decent regional name recognition after narrowly losing a race for Congress in parts of Prince George's, Howard and Anne Arundel counties. As Arundel executive, he is getting exposure in both the Baltimore and Washington media markets. Even his one link to Mr. Schaefer, serving as state drug-abuse czar, helped him establish his bona fides in a key area of public concern.

Bill Shepard, meanwhile, gained statewide exposure by taking on Mr. Schaefer last November. Though a big underdog from the outset, he impressed people with his determination and thoughtfulness.

As for Roger Hayden, he remains immensely popular in Baltimore County, where he was swept into office as county executive by a landslide vote. His biggest drawback may be his shy, low-key persona.

And then there's Jack Cade, the state Senate's jolly green giant from Anne Arundel. He's a fiscal genius, an ex-Marine whose bark is often far louder than his bite and a conservative with a soft spot for society's downtrodden. He's so outspoken and forcefully honest that he'd be a campaign manager's dream.

Already the jockeying has started. That's because of Mr. Schaefer's fast fade in the polls. He is turning into a lame duck several years sooner than expected. Mr. Kelly has officially dipped his foot into the waters. Mr. Steinberg, Mr. Curran and Mr. Glendening have quietly begun working behind the scenes. The rest are sitting on the sidelines, pondering their next move.

Only 38 months till the gubernatorial primary. This is going to be one heck of a long campaign.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of The Sun's editorial pages. His column on Maryland politics appears here each week.

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