With several political lifetimes to go before the 1994 election, no one could safely be called a prohibitive favorite in the race for governor, but Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke comes as close as anyone.
"Schmoke would be an enormously attractive, capable candidate," observes Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray. "His entrance would make it an exciting primary race and would put a lot of candidates' plans in a tailspin."
Other Democrats put it more directly in private.
"If he's in the race, it's all over," said one party official. "It would be his to lose."
A day after this assessment was offered Wednesday, a poll of 811 Maryland voters showed how fundamentally a Schmoke candidacy, which the mayor 10 days ago said he was considering, would affect the race.
Among Democrats now running or thinking about running, he led his nearest rival, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, by better than 2-to-1, according to the poll by Mason Dixon Political/Media Research Inc. of Columbia.
The 43-year-old mayor was favored by 31 percent of the sample. Mr. Curran, winner of two statewide races, had 15 percent. Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg followed at 13 percent; Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening had 10 percent; and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, had 4 percent.
Political insiders say the stir caused by Mr. Schmoke's possible entry into the gubernatorial race highlights one aspect of the Democratic field so far: No one has much political sex appeal.
* In a field of career politicians and technocrats, Mr. Schmoke would bring his high candlepower smile, his Rhodes scholar resume and a break-the-mold, sometimes risky thoughtfulness.
Some of his ideas -- notably his suggestion that drug abuse should be decriminalized -- will demand considerable explanation. But they might be turned to advantage if presented as a way of stepping away from policies that have been ineffective, particularly in urban areas.
* As mayor of Baltimore, he has shown great fund-raising prowess and he would continue to command the support of businesspeople who bankroll campaigns. If he starts to raise money in earnest, he could hurt the efforts of his competitors, though the smart-money givers will spread their cash around, maintaining good will should the Schmoke balloon collapse.
* He is the only candidate who can go into the home precincts of a competitor and instantly threaten to take control. In Prince George's County, where the black constituency is large and growing, Mr. Schmoke could cut deeply into Mr. Glendening's base. Neither man could take the black vote for granted, but Mr. Schmoke would almost certainly have a powerful claim to it.
Some reacted to the suddenness of Mr. Schmoke's announcement by saying they doubted he is serious.
But city legislators in Annapolis say Mr. Schmoke is meeting already with city senators in search of their support.
And there are other signs that he is serious: After declining earlier, Mr. Schmoke agreed last week to speak at the Carroll County Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner Saturday night.
In Baltimore, his supporters are beginning to craft a concept for the race: He could run as an outsider, having come up in politics outside the structure established by Democratic organizations reaching back to World War II. He has been resented by some of the old-line bosses precisely because he vaulted over their Baltimore clubhouses.
"In this sense, the state seems ready for a change, the way the country was in the last election," said one backer, who asked to remain unidentified.
As for the race issue, he said white Marylanders will vote for a black candidate. Republican Alan L. Keyes, who is black and who twice ran for the U.S. Senate in Maryland, won many votes in predominantly white areas, for example.
Last week's poll showed Mr. Schmoke winning the majority of his support among black voters and holding his own among whites.
Awake at the wheel
In recent days, Mr. Schmoke has been moving to capitalize on another strength, his new entree to the federal government.
"I would like Baltimore to be known as the showcase city for the Clinton urban policy," he said at a City Hall news conference last week.
He met last week with Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros was here last month to inspect public housing. And Mr. Schmoke has meetings scheduled next week with Labor Secretary Robert Reich and others in the Clinton government.
"The welcome mat is out," he said. If President Clinton's economic stimulus package passes, Mr. Schmoke says Baltimore would get another $18 million in community development block grant funds. And certainly he hopes the city will get other financial assistance.
All of this could cushion the sharp questioning he will face about his record in Baltimore.
"If Kurt runs statewide, there are going to be different questions asked of him than he's ever had to answer citywide," said Baltimore City Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge. "He has no particular success to hang his hat on. He will have to respond to what he has or has not done, as opposed to what he will do.
"Whether justified or not," Mr. Ambridge said, "he will have to respond to his position on drug decriminalization, the city's increased crime rate, the increased vacancy rate in [public] housing, on unemployment, on all the problems that plague any big city."
Mr. Schmoke's cautious administrative persona seems often to be the reverse of his dazzling political image. Last week, after months of criticism, he removed his housing commissioner, replacing him with Daniel P. Henson III, a Baltimore businessman and Schmoke adviser. While the mayor had been urged for sometime to fire the commissioner, he did so only after announcing his intention to consider the race for governor.
The Mason-Dixon poll suggests Mr. Schmoke's positive standing among voters easily offsets any negatives, however. Some 48 percent of the respondents said they were favorably disposed toward him, compared with 13 percent who held a negative view. A nearly 4-to-1 ratio of positive over negative is regarded by political professionals as solid for a public administrator who must make politically difficult decisions.
Mr. Schmoke will be faced with the charge that he has tried to solve his city's financial problems by tapping state funds at the expense of Montgomery County and other well-to-do suburbs.
Last year, he indicated he was ready to sue the state in a challenge to education funding formulas -- an action seen in Montgomery as a raid on its resources.
Mr. Glendening already is working to promote his devotion to the interests of Washington's Maryland suburbs.
Blair Lee IV, a newspaper columnist, developer and zealous defender of suburban taxpayers, says the old liberal impulse to support Baltimore has been tempered by the recession.
In his own community, he says, a needed high school will not be built and only 24 of 37 police beats are staffed. Many, he says, believe the quality of life in Montgomery County has eroded -- and they blame the insatiable appetite for state funds.
In this sense, he says, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a former Baltimore mayor, has damaged Mr. Schmoke's prospects. Mr. Schaefer did well initially among Montgomery voters. But, having suffered through big budget cuts and big money grabs under Mr. Schaefer, they will be reluctant to choose another leader from Baltimore.
"All folks down here know is that their taxes are going up and their services are going down," Mr. Lee said. "And all that pain is coming out of Annapolis. And Schaefer promised he'd do for Maryland what he did for Baltimore."
The Clinton factor
And what of the general election? Could Mr. Schmoke beat Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, the highest ranking Republican gubernatorial possibility? Could he beat Robert R. Neall, the Anne Arundel County executive, who stands second to Mrs. Bentley among Republican hopefuls? No one knows if either Mrs. Bentley or Mr. Neall will make the race.
Again, though, the Baltimore mayor could have an advantage in the general election no other candidate can claim.
Last fall, Mr. Schmoke and his chief political lieutenant, Larry Gibson, helped deliver a margin for Mr. Clinton in Maryland that was second only to the president's home state, Arkansas. Mr. Gibson had an opportunity then to put his organization through an important trial run -- a run in which the entire Democratic establishment in Maryland worked together for the first time in many years.
Mr. Clinton and Hilary Rodham Clinton, a law school classmate of Mr. Schmoke's, would almost certainly campaign for him if he runs and wins the primary.
From the point of view of the Democratic official in the State House, Mr. Schmoke's decision should be clear:
"He's crazy if he doesn't run. He'll never have a better opportunity."