Rep. Helen Delich Bentley is weighing a host of personal and political factors as she edges closer to a decision on her 1994 election plans, but fellow Republicans say that one question overshadows all the others: Can she win a race for governor in a state traditionally dominated by Democrats?
"The primary thing she's looking at right now is if that race is really doable," said a source close to Mrs. Bentley's campaign organization.
Running a close second in her calculations, some GOP sources say, is whether she feels she can raise campaign funds in the $2 million range, which many party regulars consider the minimum needed for the primary and general election.
"With Republicans outnumbered more than 2-to-1, you can argue that more than $2 million will be needed," said Kevin Igoe, former executive director of the state party.
Mrs. Bentley, a Baltimore County congresswoman, has said she may run for governor or the U.S. Senate seat now held by !B Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes or seek re-election to the 2nd District seat she has held for nine years.
In a brief telephone interview Friday, she declined to discuss the details of her decision-making except to say, "The important factor is where I can do the most good for the people, the state and the country."
For the moment, she is said to be concentrating on the gubernatorial race, preferring to rule it in or out before taking up other options, if necessary.
Party leaders for months have been pressing her to decide. At the party's fall convention last weekend, Richard P. Taylor, the GOP national committeeman, publicly urged prospective statewide candidates to declare their intentions by Nov. 8, a year to the day from next year's general election.
"I will make Dick Taylor's deadline," Mrs. Bentley said Friday.
Should Mrs. Bentley run for governor, she will join a Republican field that includes retired foreign service officer William S. Shepard, the GOP's 1990 gubernatorial candidate, and Baltimore County Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the minority leader of the House of Delegates.
Mrs. Bentley is said to feel that she has sufficient support within the party to win the nomination.
Mr. Shepard has been campaigning almost nonstop since his 1990 defeat. Ms. Sauerbrey has been on the campaign trail for four months. Both insist they are in the race to stay, no matter what Mrs. Bentley decides.
In addition to the political elements, there are personal dimensions to Mrs. Bentley's calculations. She is tough and fiery and makes little if any concession to age, but she will turn 70 next month. A statewide campaign for governor or senator stands to be physically and emotionally grueling. Is she up to it?
"That's a personal consideration that she's having to deal with herself," said a source with ties to the Bentley political team. "Nobody can do it for her."
A decision on the campaign cannot be separated from the job at the end of it. Here again age may be a factor in her calculations. No matter which of the three offices she runs for, if she wins she will be 71 on taking office, more than a year older than Ronald Reagan when he was inaugurated the nation's oldest president in 1981.
As a member of the House or Senate, she would face a rigorous daily schedule. Neither position, however, compares in its demands with that of the governor. "As a senator or congressman, you can pick your issues," Mr. Igoe said. "In those executive jobs, you can't duck any issue. They always land on your desk."
For the past several months, according to a variety of sources, Mrs. Bentley has been attempting to assess her statewide appeal, in particular her chances of winning election as governor.
This has involved a dispassionate county-by-county analysis of her prospects, which Mrs. Bentley is said to find encouraging.
Maryland Republicans, meanwhile, buoyed by recent successes in local elections and gains in voter registration, have proclaimed 1994 their year to capture the governor's office.
But Mrs. Bentley, sources say, is wary of brave talk and wishful thinking in light of Maryland's political history in statewide races.
The last Republican to be elected governor was Spiro T. Agnew in 1966. Mr. Agnew, at the time Baltimore County executive, was essentially elected by Democratic voters disaffected by their party's candidate, the late George P. Mahoney, and the racist tinge that many felt characterized his "Your home is your castle" campaign.
Twenty-three years have elapsed since J. Glenn Beall Jr. ousted Democrat Joseph D. Tydings from his U.S. Senate seat in 1970, the last time a Republican gained statewide office in Maryland. Republican Charles McC. Mathias Jr. was elected to the Senate in 1968 and was re-elected twice before retiring.
Mrs. Bentley has been criticized for the slow pace of her decision-making, but by delaying her decision she has been able to factor in important changes in the shape of the gubernatorial race in recent weeks.
On the Democratic side, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., both potentially major candidates, said last month that they will not run for governor, leaving the field for the moment to Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, Prince George's Executive Parris N. Glendening and Montgomery County Sen. Mary H. Boergers.
Mrs. Bentley is said by some to have favored a race against Mr. Schmoke, in which she could have played on a suburban base and tried to put him on the defensive by forcing him to answer for the city's urban ills.
David Blumberg, a city GOP leader and strong Bentley supporter, said he did not believe Mayor Schmoke's decision would have a major impact on her calculations. "I don't think that changes Helen's perceptions much," he said.
The GOP field also has narrowed, which could work to her benefit. A week ago, Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall, whom many had expected to enter the governor's race, said he was retiring from politics at the end of his current term.
The 'personality' factor
Mrs. Bentley must take other factors into account including, GOP sources say, her personality.
A reporter with The Sun years ago, she did not write society news. As maritime reporter and editor, she covered the waterfront. She is salty, cantankerous, occasionally bullying, not unlike Maryland's governor, Democrat William Donald Schaefer, who has encouraged her to run.
"The people of Maryland have had that for eight years, and they don't like it," said a GOP source who wonders if Mrs. Bentley's persona will play as well across the state as it has in her district.
If she runs for governor or senator, Mrs. Bentley will be forced to relinquish her House seat, which she won in 1984 after two earlier, bruising campaigns against Democrat Clarence D. Long. Republican, least of all Mrs. Bentley, wants to see it revert to the Democrats.
Thanks in large measure to Mrs. Bentley's efforts, the GOP has used that seat as a beachhead to build the party to the point where Maryland's eight-person congressional delegation is now evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. The district would not necessarily remain in Republican hands if she gives it up.
Mrs. Bentley, moreover, has employed her congressional seat as the base that has allowed her to to become the state party's titular leader, a role she is said to relish and that she would no doubt lose if she is not successful at the polls next year.
On the other hand, if things break her way, she stands to cap her political career as Maryland's first female governor, and a Republican one at that. If so, party officials believe a true two-party system could well be her legacy.
As one GOP stalwart put it, "If you're going to run statewide, you might as well do it for governor because that's the power base in politics, where you can build the party and make it stronger, make it a force to be reckoned with."