The dance of the elephants is getting intricate. Yet these political animals seem to be waltzing their way slowly toward a Republican ticket that has a fighting chance of making 1994 a watershed year for the Maryland GOP.
Republicans have much going for them as they eye next year's statewide races.
Democrats are saddled with an outgoing governor, William Donald Schaefer, who remains quite unpopular. Voters are fed up with those who have been running government -- and in Annapolis that means Democrats.
Redistricting also helps the Republicans. Many more local GOP candidates may be elected in these newly redrawn districts, giving a boost to the top of the Republican ticket. The current public distaste for the Democratic Clinton administration could prove an added bonus.
Then there are the Perot/Tsongas voters. They are often viewed as the pivotal players in future elections. These are individuals who feel little or no allegiance to one particular party. They are searching, instead, for candidates who have proven skills and yet have embraced new and innovative ways to deal with government's perennial problems.
When you look over the leaders in the Democratic field, the Perot/Tsongas crowd doesn't have much to cheer about. That could give Republicans a major opening.
State party leaders tried to clarify the air recently by staging a straw poll among GOP officials. Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall was the favorite for the gubernatorial nomination. This should demonstrate to the Hamlet-like politician ("to run or vTC not to run, that is the question . . . ") that party activists are anxious to make him their top candidate next year. It should allay one of his concerns.
But Mr. Neall is still worried about being undercut from within his own party.
Rep. Helen Bentley remains a major impediment. As long as she is a possible candidate for governor, big GOP financial supporters won't line up behind Mr. Neall.
The Anne Arundel executive also doesn't want to be victimized by a weak statewide ticket. He fears a repeat of 1986, when he ran for Congress on a GOP ticket that included such lightweights as Tom Mooney for governor and Louise Beauregard for Arundel executive. Republican voting in Mr. Neall's district plunged by 7,000 that year, costing him the congressional election (he lost by 429 votes).
These concerns may vanish by the end of summer.
Mrs. Bentley received such a lukewarm reception at the GOP's spring convention that she may be re-thinking her plans.
She is viewed by some party workers as a Schaefer-backed candidate -- an impression that could harm her in a general election. And party officials are growing increasingly irritated by her flirtation with the governorship: her hesitation is keeping the GOP in disarray and keeping Mr. Neall on the sidelines. He won't run if she does. And he can't start organizing for governor (and the party can't unify behind him) until she makes up her mind.
Mrs. Bentley is also encountering a fund-raising problem. While she continues to raise big bucks for another congressional campaign, she can't legally use that money in a gubernatorial race. She would have to start from scratch in trying to raise several million dollars.
The GOP straw poll also showed strong support for Richard D. Bennett as the party's candidate for attorney general. That is good news for Mr. Neall. Mr. Bennett, the former U.S. attorney for Maryland, is an attractive, articulate and aggressive candidate -- just the kind of ticket-mate Mr. Neall wants.
But finding a candidate to run against Democratic incumbent Paul S. Sarbanes remains a dilemma. First-term delegate-dentist Ronald Franks of Queen Anne's County, a complete unknown to most Marylanders, was the choice of the straw poll balloters. A Franks-Sarbanes race would be a classic mismatch. It would clearly hurt the rest of the Republican ticket.
Yet Mr. Franks was so buoyed by the straw poll that now he says he'll probably run for the Senate nomination. For a guy who won his primary in 1990 by just 21 votes, that's known as a mega-quantum leap. Mr. Sarbanes must be chuckling.
Stronger Senate candidates probably will emerge. The best GOP nominee at this stage would be Mrs. Bentley: she could use her congressional campaign fund in a Senate race and she could deny Mr. Sarbanes much of his traditional blue-collar support. She also has the national political connections to rake in the kinds of campaign contributions needed to give Mr. Sarbanes a tough, close race.
A Neall-Bennett-Bentley team would trouble any Democratic slate. If 1994 is to be the Year of the Elephant in Maryland, it will take that kind of strong statewide combination to shake voters of
their entrenched Democratic habits.
Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director for The Sun.