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Maryland Voters Are Moe Critical, Less Predictable


Paul Tsongas is a popular guy these days. So is Ross Perot. Virtually every Maryland candidate contemplating a run for governor next year has embraced one of these iconoclasts.

And no wonder. Mr. Tsongas coasted to victory over Bill Clinton in Maryland's 1992 Democratic presidential primary with a suburban strategy that could set new standards for future statewide elections. Then in November, Mr. Perot highlighted the discontent among a strong minority of voters -- 271,000 strong -- who could provide the winning margin in next year's state races.

The dynamics of Maryland's politics have changed in the past decade. The state is no longer "safe" for liberal Democratic politicians. Maryland voters are more cautious, more skeptical of traditional liberal solutions, more disparaging of government, more open to new ideas. Messrs. Tsongas and Perot offered plenty of those last year. Now a horde of political opportunists want to duplicate their success.

With incumbent Gov. William Donald Schaefer barred by the Constitution from seeking a third consecutive term, the field is wide open. Into that void have stepped nine hopefuls. All of them want to run against those who have led government -- in the Perot mode -- and for innovative and forceful changes -- a la Paul Tsongas. All of them want to be viewed as outsiders seeking to replace a discredited administration that has encountered a storm of criticism in its second term.

At this early stage -- 13-plus months before the primary and 16-plus months before the general election -- the presumed frontrunners are two elected officials who might not even be in the race this time next year: Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Baltimore County Rep. Helen Delich Bentley. Why are they the frontrunners? Because they have the greatest name recognition, and that is all the polls reflect so far in advance of the actual campaign.

Both candidates have significant liabilities that opponents would focus on during the heat of a campaign. These liabilities could quickly erase any early advantage they gain from being well-known.

In many respects, the 1994 election resembles the 1978 gubernatorial race. Back then, five candidates (later narrowed to four) battled for the Democratic nomination and four others fought for the GOP vote. The winner in the Democratic primary and then the general election was long shot Harry R. Hughes, derisively referred to as a "lost ball in tall grass." The current candidates want to repeat this Hughes miracle.

Each candidate, though, has a slightly different strategy for making it through the primary and then the general election. Here is a snapshot view of how these candidates stack up. Remember, though, that there's a long, long way to go in this contest. Many of these individuals will drop out and unexpected developments can dramatically change the complexion of this race.

First, the Democrats.

* KURT L. SCHMOKE. Baltimore's mayor is, indeed, well-known and personable. He is also black, which gives him a distinct advantage in majority-black Baltimore City and majority-black Prince George's County -- an initial base of support that appears broader than other Democrats in the race. He's a certified "friend of Bill's" and is likely to adopt a Clintonesque campaign that is moderately liberal, though clearly pro-city. He will appeal to the liberal conscience of enlightened suburbanites, especially in Howard and Montgomery counties.

Liabilities: His management of the city will be labeled "incompetent" by opponents. His drug-legalization stance will trouble many outside the city; a substantial majority of white city voters has opposed him in past elections; his support among Prince George's blacks won't be solid, and his alliance with county executive candidate Wayne Curry will cost him votes, especially from supporters of rival candidate Sen. Beatrice Tignor; he'll encounter strong anti-city sentiment in Montgomery and rural areas; Republicans could have a field day running against a "tax and spend Democrat."

* MELVIN A. STEINBERG. The lieutenant governor can claim credit for masterminding many of the top achievements of the Schaefer administration's first term. He's recognized as a skilled legislator and consensus-seeker. He has a strong base of support in Jewish areas of Baltimore County and Montgomery County, and among state senators in rural and suburban areas.

Liabilities: He can't deny being part of the disliked Schaefer team, even though he's been stripped of all duties by the governor these past three years; he's expressed no vision or plan for Maryland's future; he's an "old pol" at a time when voters think that's a dirty name; his image is as a dealmaker, not a leader.

* PARRIS N. GLENDENING. The popular Prince George's county executive is finishing his third term in a subdivision undergoing dramatic changes. He's proved a solid administrator and student of government. He endorsed Paul Tsongas last year and envisions repeating the Tsongas strategy next year. He has long drawn broad support in the county's numerous black middle-class communities. He'll appeal to voters looking for a Washington-area candidate.

Liabilities: He's bland as a college professor (which he was); he's unknown in the crucial Baltimore suburbs; his support in equally crucial Montgomery is questionable; his home-county base is undercut by Mr. Schmoke's appeal to blacks.

* J. JOSEPH CURRAN. The attorney general thinks he can be next year's Harry Hughes -- a "Mr. Clean" who has government experience but no ties to the "ins" the public dislikes. He's highly likable and has put forth a progressive vision for "Maryland 2000." He's trying hard to position himself as the consumer's best friend. He's got solid support in Northeast Baltimore City and adjoining parts of Baltimore County. Good-government types applaud his message.

Liabilities: He could have trouble raising enough money to compete. He's been a political insider most of his life. He's not a charismatic campaigner. His appeal appears quite limited. There's no corruption-in-government issue as there was in 1978. Some question whether he's tough enough to be governor.

* MARY H. BOERGERS. This Montgomery County state senator is running as the women's candidate. She also wants to appeal to anti-city voters, especially in the heavy-voting suburbs that feel shortchanged in Annapolis. Her spirited personality could be a plus. She is counting on a massive show of support from her home county and strong financial support from national women's groups.

Liabilities: She's underfinanced and inexperienced as a statewide candidate, with few major achievements to boast about during 11 years in the legislature. She's been a quiet backbencher, never a legislative leader. She's unknown outside her Montgomery district. Other candidates view her as angling to join one of their tickets as lieutenant governor.

* DR. NEIL SOLOMON. Most everyone knows him from his best-selling health books, his syndicated newspaper column, his Baltimore-area medical practice, from his controversial tenure as state health secretary in the 1970s and his chairmanship of the state's drug and AIDS commission. He's clearly an outsider without any ties to power-brokers. He fashions himself as the Ross Perot of next year's race, be it as a Democrat, Republican or an Independent.

Liabilities: Unless he wins exoneration of sex misconduct charges, his political ambitions are DOA. Then he must persuade voters to take his campaign seriously. He's a health expert who has run a billion-dollar bureaucracy, but he's had no legislative or political experience. Do voters want to take that kind of gamble?

Now we come to the four Republicans with an eye on the Governor's Mansion:

* HELEN D. BENTLEY. Feisty and colorful, this five-term congresswoman from Baltimore County is a dreadnought within state GOP ranks. She's also the proud defender of the Port of Baltimore, and a protector of American jobs. She's immensely popular in Baltimore County, where she has developed a strong Republican infrastructure. She'd have no trouble drawing media attention.

Liabilities: She hasn't focused on state issues. She's a carbon-copy of Governor Schaefer in her "do-it-now" attitude. She often speaks too bluntly. She is perceived as a friend and ally of the governor. She is not well known to Marylanders in the Washington suburbs. Her congressional record may be way too conservative for state voters.

* ROBERT R. NEALL. The Anne Arundel County Executive has downsized, reorganized, privatized and shrunk the county government without raising taxes or cutting into essential services. He's admired as a budget and management expert. He helped shape state budgets when he was House Minority Leader. His pragmatic approach to government could prove a popular campaign theme.

Liabilities: He is not generally known in the rest of Maryland. He's not a dynamic campaigner. He will be opposed by government unions for his championing of pension reforms, privatization and pay holddowns. He's got a short fuse.

* ELLEN R. SAUERBREY. The current House minority leader has made her reputation in the General Assembly as a budget watchdog. She devised the rationale for defeating the Linowes commission tax reforms and set forth a budget-cutting scheme last session that was so irresistible the Democratic leadership embraced it. She's popular in her northern Baltimore County district and quietly articulate.

Liabilities: She is another unknown candidate to most Marylanders. She's never run for any office other than delegate. She could be outspent by a considerable margin. Name-recognition could be tough to achieve in a primary that includes Mr. Neall and Mrs. Bentley.

WILLIAM S. SHEPARD. The 1990 Republican nominee is persistent, if nothing else. Since winning 40 percent of the vote three years ago, he's been stumping the state in search of renewed Republican support. He lives in Montgomery County, which is a pivotal county in Republican primaries.

Liabilities: Money will be a concern. He's never held any elective office. He's failed to impress Republican leaders in the past three years. He's still viewed as a carpetbagger in the Alan Keyes-Linda Chavez mold, having spent much of his career overseas as a diplomat.

GOP leaders believe they have a golden opportunity next year to make an unprecedented comeback. Their reasoning in the governor's race is clear: with a well-regarded nominee, they only need to pick up another 11 percent of the vote. In recent state elections, losing Republican candidates for Senate and governor have chalked up about 40 percent of the vote. That is now viewed as a given for any credible Republican candidate.

That 40 percent generally includes the Perot-type voter. What the GOP needs is to identify with issues that Tsongas-type Democrats feel are important. They happen to be the kinds of themes already being sounded by the Nealls and Sauerbreys of this campaign: downsizing government, cutting the budget, approaching government problems more creatively.

Democratic leaders, meanwhile, are also looking for a Tsongas-type candidate who can hold onto those swing voters. Identification with the "reinventing government" issue is key: if Democrats can find a candidate capable of defining issues in a different way, those swing votes won't desert the party in November 1994.

To date, no one has excited big voter interest. Does this set the stage for a true dark-horse candidate to emerge from somewhere? Will the strategies of Democrats and Republicans be re-written as the events of the next year unfold? Will Bill Clinton or Donald Schaefer be a factor -- positive or negative -- in the outcome? How about Ross Perot?

The 1994 elections could prove a watershed for Maryland Republicans or reinforce Maryland's image as a Democratic stronghold. Only a few things about next year's gubernatorial election are clear at this stage: it will be a crowded field, the jockeying for advantage will be intense, the shifting strategies will be Byzantine and -- most important of all -- the wishes of voters won't be taken for granted.

Barry Rascovar is editorial page director of The Sun.

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