We are still a year away from election day in Maryland but already the fur is flying and the backstabbing is fast and furious. Forget about conventional theories on who's ahead and who's behind. The race for governor could rewrite the rule books.
First, the Republican Party's leading candidate, Anne Arundel County Executive Robert Neall, drops out, concerned about raising $3 million, conducting a long campaign and resolving his personal problems. Next, the party's second-best hope, Rep. Helen Bentley, continues her hesitation three-step dance by saying she'll decide when she's good and ready whether to run for senator, governor or the House.
Republican regulars are discouraged. They are left with a choice between Reaganomics devotee Del. Ellen Sauerbrey and ex-diplomat William S. Shepard. By default, Ms. Sauerbrey appears the leading contender, though Mr. Shepard shouldn't be underestimated. He won 40 percent of the 1990 vote for governor, after all.
Sauerbrey backers were gleeful that Mr. Neall dropped out. The delegate has no great political love for Mr. Neall. She is the Newt Gingrich of the minority Republicans in the House of Delegates; Mr. Neall was the Bob Michel of the House GOP in the 1980s. She takes a hard, conservative line on issues and won't budge; Mr. Neall is willing to seek compromises. She has been largely ineffective in the House, while Mr. Neall became the most powerful House Republican in decades.
Mr. Neall also drew the ire of GOP ideologues by daring to work for a Democratic governor and for appointing Democrats to his administration in Anne Arundel. The Sauerbrey loyalists believe TC in the spoils system: When a Republican returns to the governor's mansion, the booty should be claimed only by Republicans.
That's the sort of exclusionary politics that has alienated Republican candidates from the mainstream of Maryland voters. But among party activists, Mrs. Sauerbrey is popular. She could win the primary, unless Mr. Shepard pulls another upset, as he did in 1990.
Mr. Shepard has a big base of GOP support in Montgomery County. And that county casts about 20 percent of the Republican vote. He's also been stumping the state for three years.
Then there's the Bentley factor. If the congresswoman enters the race, Mrs. Sauerbrey's base in Baltimore County is badly diluted. Mrs. Bentley would be tough to beat. What could stand in her way is Governor Schaefer.
The governor, though a Democrat, wants Mrs. Bentley to run. If she does, he's likely to embrace her. That would be a crushing blow for Mrs. Bentley. Republicans hope to use public anger toward the Democratic governor as a lever for sweeping Democrats out of office. They want to make Democrat Schaefer the campaign issue.
But if a Schaefer friend such as Mrs. Bentley is in the race, what will Republicans do in their primary? The answer may not please the congresswoman.
Meanwhile, Mr. Schaefer has propelled himself into the center of the Democratic primary, too. In an ironic twist of fate, all three announced candidates are running as hard as they can away from William Donald Schaefer, the titular head of their own party.
All three vehemently oppose the governor on keno lottery gambling and on his failure to reform the state's procurement system. And Mr. Schaefer is returning the favor, anxiously imploring other Democrats to enter the race.
As far as the governor is concerned, the three announced candidates, Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg, Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening and state Sen. Mary Boergers, are non-persons. They don't exist.
His exact quotation: "I don't know anything about the present field. I don't know who's running."
Instead, he's working feverishly to enlist a friendly face. His latest effort: persuading either Rep. Ben Cardin or Rep. Steny Hoyer to run. He's even been urging state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, a likable but unambitious backbencher from Baltimore's old "Fighting First" district, to run for governor.
So far, he's struck out. Mr. Schaefer won't give up trying, though. He especially wants to sabotage the gubernatorial ambitions of Mr. Steinberg. Since the two split over the Linowes commission tax recommendations, Mr. Schaefer has consigned his lieutenant governor to a State House gulag. He now wants to impose a political death penalty on Mr. Steinberg by denying him the governorship. It's vendetta time.
Mr. Steinberg, in turn, decided last week to try to set himself apart as the distinctly anti-Schaefer candidate by accusing the incumbent governor of a series of unsubstantiated fiscal improprieties. Terms such as fraud, waste of tax dollars, misappropriations and accounting gimmicks were tossed around.
But Mr. Steinberg failed to document these alleged offenses and his charges were never printed. That hurt the lieutenant governor's credibility. Mr. Schaefer didn't have to lift a finger to arrange this setback for his nemesis.
Who would have thought non-candidate William Donald Schaefer would be such a major factor in both primaries? And who would have thought the incumbent's embrace would be viewed as the kiss of death in these primaries?
This is, indeed, an upside down, topsy-turvy election campaign. Just as he has done for the past eight years, William Donald Schaefer -- despite low poll ratings -- remains the focus of attention. Even as he nears political retirement, the man refuses to relinquish center stage.
Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.