Gov. William Donald Schaefer bolted officially from his party's presidential nominee yesterday and endorsed Republican George Bush.
Mr. Schaefer, who has stopped just short of throwing his support to Mr. Bush on numerous occasions, took that step after being asked to do so by Bush campaign manager Robert Teeter, said Page Boinest, Mr. Schaefer's acting press secretary.
The Bush campaign will almost surely present the governor as a high-ranking Democratic defector from the ranks of Gov. Bill Clinton.
Since Mr. Schaefer's standing among Marylanders has been at a low ebb, his support for Mr. Bush will have impact, if any, outside the state. Polls in Maryland show Mr. Clinton comfortably ahead.
Ms. Boinest said the governor will board a campaign plane at Andrews Air Force Base today and fly to Nashville, Tenn. There, he will join President Bush for a flight aboard Air Force One to St. Louis and a campaign rally with Missouri Republican Gov. John D. Ashcroft at Maryville College.
"The White House called today and asked if he would be interested in appearing with the president," Ms. Boinest said, adding that he agreed last night to cancel other appearances on his schedule today so he could go. "He feels in his heart that President Bush should be elected for four more years."
Some have suggested Mr. Schaefer might want to run again for mayor of Baltimore when his last gubernatorial term ends in 1994; others say he would be interested in a post in the Bush administration -- should there be a second Bush term.
Larry S. Gibson, state chairman of the Clinton-Gore campaign, called the governor's endorsement "no surprise to us. I don't think it's news to Marylanders, either." He said he did not think Mr. Schaefer's endorsement would affect Mr. Clinton's lead in Maryland -- since most people already assumed the governor was backing Mr. Bush.
Mr. Gibson answered questions at party headquarters on West Pratt Street last night, just after a speech by vice presidential candidate Sen. Al Gore in downtown Baltimore.
But in other quarters, there was outrage.
"I think by endorsing Bush he has forfeited his right to be the titular head of the Democratic Party," said Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, who has been estranged from his former ally, Mr. Schaefer. Virtually every other leading Democrat in Maryland has endorsed Mr. Clinton, he said.
Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, occasionally shunned by the governor, was an early backer of Mr. Clinton and will go to Little Rock to be with him on Election Day.
Mr. Schaefer, who endorsed former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas in the Maryland primary, has been cool to Mr. Clinton. During the general election, he has avoided joint appearances ,, with the Democratic nominee, his surrogates or even with Hillary Clinton, who appeared on Maryland's State House steps Tuesday.
Mr. Schaefer has told his associates that he believes Mr. Clinton has tailored his positions too carefully to his own political ambitions.
During this year's Democratic primary in Maryland, the Clinton campaign carefully avoided any situation in which it would have appeared that they wanted the governor to endorse Mr. Clinton, afraid to tie their candidate with Mr. Schaefer's low standing in Maryland public opinion polls.
The governor's relationship with the Clinton campaign improved marginally during the general election campaign, primarily because the Clinton forces hoped to keep the governor from doing precisely what he is expected to do today.
The governor's spokeswoman insisted last night that Mr. Schaefer will continue to support Maryland's Democratic candidates for Congress.
"That's not the issue for him," Ms. Boinest said.
If Mr. Bush were to rally and win re-election, Mr. Schaefer's last-minute gamble could give Maryland's governor rare entree to the Bush administration.
Earlier in the day, before his trip to Missouri was announced, Mr. Schaefer was asked about the wisdom of withholding his endorsement of his party's nominee.
"If he wins, he'll treat us the same as any other state," he said.
The Schaefer embrace drew a chilly response from state GOP Chairwoman Joyce Terhes. Within the Republican Party, Mr. Schaefer's leaning toward President Bush has been regarded with something less than enthusiasm.
"It will play well [for the GOP campaign] in 49 states," she said. "It will not play well in Maryland.
The governor's support for Mr. Bush -- and his public backing of at least one other Republican, 2nd District Rep. Helen Delich Bentley -- also prompted criticism from Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening.
"Ironically, and outrageously, at least half the [budget] problems we have now in Maryland are the result of the failed economic problems of the president," Mr. Glendening said.
He also complained that three-term 4th District Democratic Rep. Tom McMillen might not have been forced into such a difficult race against Republican 1st District Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest if Mr. Schaefer had not been so close to Mrs. Bentley during congressional reapportionment negotiations last year.
Mr. Schaefer was not totally without Democratic Party defenders.
Last summer, Mr. Schaefer traveled to New York to the Democratic National Convention to make sure that he, and not former Maryland Democratic Party chairman Nathan Landow, announced that virtually all of Maryland's votes were going to Bill Clinton. Mr. Schaefer also voted for the Arkansas governor.