A feverish caution envelops the political landscape of Marylandthese days, stifling ambition and threatening to flatten every stalk of gubernatorial timber.
Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. was the first to fall. On Sept. 7 he announced he would not run for governor next year. He would try instead for a third term as the state's top lawyer.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke came next. A man whose radiant smile and resume made him a front-runner, the mayor's presence enlivened a field with some talent and no flair. On Sept. 20, Mr. Schmoke said he wouldn't go. Too much unfinished business in City Hall.
These Democrats were joined by Republican Robert R. Neall, the Anne Arundel County executive, who said Oct. 15 that he wouldn'trun either -- not even for re-election.
Each of these men would have brought significant strengths to the race. No one would have regarded them as frivolous ego trippers. All three had seemed anxious to move up the ladder of public service.
But suddenly they removed themselves to sit tight or walk away altogether.
A politician who won't run is like a gambler who won't bet, who suddenly discovers that the odds are against him.
So, what was happening? Do we have a trend here or three individuals who, for the moment and for personal reasons, would rather not run?
Mr. Curran said: "I love the law and having the chance to stand up for the citizens of this state. There's no other reason behind this decision." Was this an explanation? Can't a governor love the law and stand up for Maryland?
Others thought his early campaign lacked energy, money and direction. But he was a notoriously slow starter, well-respected by insiders and blessed by the high regard of voters.
Mr. Schmoke said unfinished business in Baltimore obliged him to stay on as mayor.
"While we're moving in the right direction much more needs to be done," he said. "I believe that it will take committed leadership. One of the things that marks our programs is that these are works in progress. We are not ready to declare victory."
Others thought he didn't want to be governor. That would be heavy psychic baggage to carry along with his record as mayor, which some do not regard as evidence of readiness to run the state.
Nevertheless. He could raise big money. He'd be a good campaigner. And his record in the city had its selling points: good fiscal management, for example, in time when federal and state aid were drastically cut.
And Mr. Neall: "I'm personally uncomfortable with . . . being dependent upon elective office for my livelihood," he said at a news conference in Annapolis as his wife and four children stood behind him. How long had he felt this discomfort? Why did he ever run?
"I'm a middle-class guy, and there are some risks that you can afford to take, and there are some risks that you can't. This is one, I think, that is stretching the limits."
Mr. Neall had said earlier he was a candidate made for the times. Governors in the rest of this decade can look forward to making services smaller and less expensive, to doing more with less, to "privatization."
This might have been red meat to the conservative Mr. Neall. For others it would not be an inducement.
"The sense of opportunity is gone," says Alan Ehrenhalt, editor of Governing magazine in Washington. "Five years ago even state government was said to be the laboratory of government. States had some money.
"Look at 1986 when Schaefer left Baltimore. He was leaving intractable problems and going for a job that offered more power, more money to do things." That campaign might not have been nearly so attractive if the state treasury then had looked the way it does today.
What is happening in Maryland is probably not coincidence and probably not a Maryland phenomenon, says Mr. Ehrenhalt. And Charles E. Cook Jr., author of a Washington newsletter on candidates and candidacies called the Cook Political Report, agrees.
"I think it's part of a national trend," he says. "The experience of running for office isn't as pleasurable as it used to be. An ordeal is probably a charitable term for a political campaign. People are getting right up to the brink of running and pulling back when they ask if they want to put family through it."
Negative campaigning, he says, is so sophiticated and vicious today that jaywalking can be made to look like a capital offense.
Disgust over gridlock in Washington and the resulting interest in term limitations are part of an electoral atmosphere that makes the would-be candidate extra wary. Former President Ronald Reagan used to say that government is the problem, not the solution. That view has been internalized and institutionalized.
Mr. Cook points to several other states -- New Jersey, Massachusetts and Minnesota, for example -- where good candidates are staying out of races in which the incumbents seemed vulnerable or where the seats were open.
In Minnesota, he said, the U.S. Senate seat about to be vacated by David Durenberger has not attracted the high-caliber field one might have expected. "No one you know of is running," Mr. Cook says.
In Maryland, Rep. Constance A. Morella, the 8th District Republican, has turned aside insistent pleas that she run for the United States Senate against the incumbent Democrat, Paul S. Sarbanes. Though some regard the studiously low-profile Mr. Sarbanes as vulnerable, Mrs. Morella has said pointedly that she would not challenge him. She may have left some room to reconsider. But for now she's on the sideline.
Then there is Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, the Republican congresswoman from Towson who says she'd like to be governor or U.S. Senator.
How old were we when Mrs. Bentley first began to think about running for one of these two offices? The snipers in her party say she just loves the mentioning game, as in "Congresswoman Bentley, often mentioned as a possible candidate for. . . ." They are betting she will try for re-election to her 2nd District seat.
To her credit, Mrs. Bentley has been there. She's won in overwhelmingly Democratic territory -- and made it overwhelmingly Bentley territory. So she's won the right to consider the race for as long as she wants.
All the declining and temporizing, though, has major political parties and others in a stew. Mrs. Bentley's party is demanding an answer by Nov. 8.
And Governor Schaefer actually launched an informal candidate recruitment service last week. His favorite successor, the Democratic governor said, was Mrs. Bentley, a Republican. The Democrats now in the race have antagonized him in one way or another.
Again, no takers. It is worth observing that many of these reluctant candidates can probably stay in the offices they hold now. They don't have to take the big risk. Mr. Schmoke, for example, can easily wait at age 43 for a chance to be a U.S. Senator, something he probably would like to be.
Those who would like to be governor as soon as possible are, on the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg of Baltimore County, Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening and state Sen. Mary H. Boergers of Montgomery County.
Each of them now looks extra brave, more decisive and focused.
Mrs. Sauerbrey, perhaps speaking in this instance for all the contenders, says handwringing is unnecessary. Some of the people who have gotten out, she says, are "good old boys who've been doing bad old things for a long time." If that is true, the pressure of the electorate is appropriate and effective and part of the ever evolving process.
As for those who can't make up their minds, she says, part of being an executive is being willing to take calculated risks, being able to make up your mind and act.
She is particularly unfazed, the idea of having less money is not the problem, it's the opportunity.
"We're off course," she says. "We have to find ways of doing things more effectively with the dollars that are available."
The question for voters, Mr. Cook says, may be this: will hyper-intensive scrutiny of candidates and office holders drive talent out of the pool?
Some candidates may find that testing the waters has a new objective: The question is not whether the water is too hot or too cold.
The question is: Can you walk on it?
C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.