THE first statewide poll on the 1994 Maryland governor's rac came out two weeks ago, and lo and behold, the warmest winds of the Mason-Dixon polling organization blew on Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd.
The 69-year-old five-term congresswoman found herself, somewhat surprisingly, high atop the Republican heap. The poll prompted Mrs. Bentley to say she was "seriously considering" the race. Privately, she apparently thinks the contest is winnable, and she's consulting party leaders, grass-roots supporters and financial backers.
From most potential rivals, she's getting the signal they'll stay out of her way if she seeks the nomination. Former Tennessee Sen. Bill Brock has told supporters he's deferring to Mrs. Bentley; Anne Arundel County Executive Bobby Neall also will step aside for her. Meantime, party strategists are pressing Mrs. Bentley for a decision by June 1.
If she says "yes," she could become Maryland's first woman governor -- a stirring way to cap a varied and colorful career.
As the most credible and qualified Republican candidate for governor in a decade and a half, Mrs. Bentley would bring major strengths to the race. Chief among them is her ability to raise lots of money. She's not wealthy herself, and federal regulations probably won't allow her to tap into the $100,000 or so left in her congressional campaign treasury.
But she's typically been able to pick up the phone and call a Henry Rosenberg, CEO at Crown Central, for help in raising campaign money. Ditto for other big hitters in the state's business community. With her prowess in economic development, which could be the campaign's biggest issue, and her considerable past success in helping business, she should be able to raise the $1.5 million needed to run.
Mrs. Bentley's strengths stem from who she is and where she comes from. Closely identified with blue-collar Baltimore (especially the port), she's best known for her tough talk, emotional volatility and gruffness. All of that will help her politically in the Baltimore area, Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.
Her chief liability may be that she's too much like Gov. William Donald Schaefer, another volatile, impatient personality who is a tough boss and whose job performance ratings by Maryland voters make him a political albatross. Mrs. Bentley and the governor are political friends, and the connection may be a tricky and personally upsetting one for the congresswoman.
She probably could work a deal with Mr. Schaefer that would keep him out of the picture, but in a general election campaign Democratic candidates like Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening could remind voters of the Bentley-Schaefer ties. She could be skewered with a generational theme: Mrs. Bentley is of the Schaefer generation, a part of what Maryland politics has been, not of what it could be. Her opponents no doubt also will remind voters that the Republican encouraged Mr. Schaefer's endorsement of George Bush for president.
To escape the inevitable Schaefer comparisons, Mrs. Bentley will have to do several things. She'll have to show considerable restraint, avoiding the pettiness and vindictiveness associated with Mr. Schaefer. She'll have to emphasize that she knows Annapolis but isn't part of the State House scene.
To show she's not just Mr. Schaefer in a skirt, she'll have to reshape her own political persona. In fact, Mrs. Bentley seems to recognize she must address social issues, like education. She's on a congressional subcommittee that focuses on education and welfare. That should complement her past identification with port, business, transportation and public works issues.
If she enters the race at the beginning of June, as party figures hope she will, Mrs. Bentley will have time to put together an effective primary campaign against Bill Shepard, of Montgomery County, who, with his wife as running mate, took on Mr. Schaefer in 1990 and will probably try again next year.
Some days, Mrs. Bentley seems about 95 percent committed to running. Other days, she seems uncertain, or unwilling to make the personal sacrifice a gubernatorial race would entail. As she plays for time, and tries to figure out which Republican to bless for her congressional seat, Mrs. Bentley is promising party-mates she'll have her own poll completed this spring. That will help her decide whether to take her chances, or to stay in Washington.
A street-smart Mrs. Bentley could make the Maryland governor's race the most competitive in years. In the end, she'll probably decide that, for her party's future, she really has no choice: She'll have to run.
Bruce L. Bortz is editor of the Maryland Report newsletter. He writes here every other week.