Now that Rep. Helen Delich Bentley has finally made up her mind, Maryland Republicans find themselves in an unfamiliar posture: a competitive, three-way primary for governor next September is likely. That prospect thrills state party leaders, who are accustomed to drab primaries with few real contests to attract voter interest.
Mrs. Bentley, now in her fifth term representing the Second Congressional District, is a GOP heavyweight who fills the unofficial role as the state party's titular leader. She has been instrumental in building up the greatly outnumbered minority party over the past decade. Her decision to abandon her congressional career could strengthen the party's chances in statewide races next fall.
But first she must win the September primary. There are already two formidable opponents in the race, Del. Ellen Sauerbrey of Baltimore County and former diplomat William S. Shepard of Montgomery County. Each presents a challenge to Mrs. Bentley. Mrs. Sauerbrey has a $100,000 head start in campaign funds and has set up a statewide organization; many of her supporters are longtime Bentley backers but couldn't wait for the congresswoman to make up her mind. The two officeholders also represent overlapping constituencies.
Mr. Shepard, meanwhile, won 53 percent of the Republican vote in 1990 when he gained the GOP's gubernatorial nomination. He has been campaigning ever since, lining up support across Maryland. His home county of Montgomery is the heaviest-voting subdivision in Republican primaries.
What does Mrs. Bentley have to offer? A distinguished record as protector of the Port of Baltimore. Five terms in Congress. Six years as chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission. A reputation as a tenacious and salty-talking politician dedicated to bringing pork to Baltimore, her congressional district and Maryland.
But Mrs. Bentley has her shortcomings. She has spent her political career in Washington, not Annapolis. She has no executive experience that would prepare her to manage 71,000 employees and a $12 billion budget. Her fierce campaigns against NAFTA, against Japanese imports (remember the boombox-smashing stunt?) and for the Serbian cause in the former Yugoslavia have raised eyebrows. Her political alliance with Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer and her union ties aren't popular among Republicans.
Still, Mrs. Bentley has changed the dynamics of the GOP primary. Republicans may be in for a classic, no-holds-barred campaign, and voters next November seem assured of a choice, not an echo. Maryland could be on the verge of holding a true two-party election.