Familiar Fight in 2nd District?

Will it be deja vu all over again in the 2nd Congressional District? Senior citizen incumbent, relying heavily on constituent loyalty, virtually ignores challenger who's never held office but whose party's presidential candidate leads in the polls.

That was the scenario in 1984 when Republican Helen D. Bentley defeated septuagenarian Rep. Clarence D. Long, an 11-term Democrat, on the strength of a Ronald Reagan landslide. This time, the crusty Mrs. Bentley, 68, is conducting a low-key campaign against Democrat Michael C. Hickey Jr. while George Bush's poll popularity is sagging.


Mrs. Bentley still shows up for every bull roast and taffy pull, and she's a familiar TV fixture with caustic sound-bite commentary. She has raised 40 or 50 times as much money as Mr. Hickey, an Abingdon lawyer who naturally champions term limits, campaign spending limits and other curbs on incumbent perks.

The reserve Marine colonel hasn't thrown himself fully into battle against Mrs. Bentley, and his sortees against her conservative positions have not provoked a counterattack from the former journalist and Federal Maritime Commissioner. The most memorable aspect of his campaign is the cutesy slogan, "Let's give Congress a Hickey."


Believing that younger women will decide this election, Mr. Hickey takes a pro-choice stand on abortion, while pointing to his activity in the Knights of Columbus and the council of his Roman Catholic church. He also supports national industrial policy, rapid conversion of defense industries, health care reform, child care and family leave.

Mr. Hickey, 48, finished dead last in the 1990 primary for the 1st District, but won a five-way primary this year. Mrs. Bentley's tTC major battle was to retain the heart of her constituency when district lines were redrawn to include Harford, most of Baltimore County and a sliver of Anne Arundel.

The Lutherville Republican is vulnerable on several issues, in addition to the rising anti-incumbent tide. Her role as Serbian apologist in the brutal Balkan civil war has brought her justifiable criticism. Despite protectionist cant and jingoist gestures like smashing a Japanese-made TV set on the Capitol steps, Mrs. Bentley's tenure has seen a decline of blue-collar jobs in the steel mills and the port, and the white-collar work force is shrinking even faster. But Mrs. Bentley's blunt-speaking, street-fighter image appeals to many voters.

The choice for voters is a clear one: between a well-known, hard-working Republican incumbent with a strong personality and a pro-Maryland congressional record, and a well-meaning but undynamic political fledgling plugging campaign reform and standing firmly on the Clinton platform.