Bentley can overcome missteps, observers say


U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley may have stumbled from the starting gate, but political observers say her Republican gubernatorial aspirations can survive two early missteps if her campaign avoids similar blunders as the 1994 race heats up.

At issue are her vote against a landmark gun control measure -- she said her vote was recorded incorrectly -- and her allegation, later downplayed if not actually retracted, that she was offered a large campaign contribution in return for switching her position against the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"I don't think they'll have any long-range impact on the campaign," said Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Political-Media Research, a nonpartisan polling firm. "If these types of things persist, if this is the start of more to come, certainly it will undo her."

"I think it's early still," said state Sen. Howard A. Denis, a Montgomery County Republican who is not aligned with any of the GOP candidates for governor. "Beginnings are hard. It takes a lot more fuel to get off the ground than to stay in the air. It remains to be seen if this is an isolated incident or a pattern."

David R. Blumberg, the city GOP chairman and a longtime Bentley supporter, called the apparent miscues "a blip on the radar screen."

"Obviously it's not the the kind of publicity you want to start out a campaign, but it's probably a good learning experience because when you're running statewide every possible misstep in magnified," he said. "It's good it happened now and not a year from now."

Though she has many such defenders, Mrs. Bentley's difficulties over the past few days have raised some concern in GOP circles.

"Everyone was saying, 'What in the world is going on?' " one prominent Republican remarked after a suburban Washington fund-raiser over the weekend.

Of particular worry, some observers said, was whether Mrs. Bentley's behavior in recent days means she is showing her age. She turns 70 this month.

Mr. Blumberg called the age factor bogus. "If you're 70 years old, you're not allowed to say you're tired when you're tired because people immediately say age is an issue. It's a cheap shot."

Mrs. Bentley brushed off the prospect of long-term damage to her campaign. "I'm from the old school," she said. "I don't care what they say about me as long as they put my name in the paper and spell it right. . . ."

The five-term Baltimore County congresswoman was immediately installed as the front-runner on Wednesday when she declared her candidacy for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Before the day was out, however, she found herself embroiled in controversy.

After telling reporters at her announcement news conference that she planned to vote for the Brady gun control bill later that day, she was recorded as voting against it on the House floor.

She insisted later that her vote had been recorded incorrectly by the House computer system, although Donnald K. Anderson, the House clerk, maintained that the system is checked daily and has never been known to malfunction.

To support her assertion that she favored the measure, which imposes a five-day waiting period before the purchase of a handgun, Mrs. Bentley placed in the Congressional Record a statement saying that her intention had been to vote for the measure, which passed 238-189.

On Sunday, she conceded the possibility that she herself may have been at fault. "I think I pushed the right button," she said. "It was not recorded that way. Maybe I goofed."

She tripped again Friday, telling a radio talk show audience that she had been offered a campaign contribution in excess of $100,000 if she would end her ardent opposition to NAFTA, which would gradually eliminate trade barriers among the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Having seemingly aired a bribe allegation -- which she failed to report to law enforcement authorities -- Mrs. Bentley quickly backed off, first through aides, then through prepared statement Saturday denying that she had been offered any "direct monetary inducement" to switch her vote.

Pro-NAFTA business leaders "simply suggested," she said in her statement, "that by changing my position it would benefit campaign fund-raising."

In a brief interview Sunday at a rally and fund-raiser for Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden, Mrs. Bentley declined further discussion of the affair but did offer an explanation of how she came up with the six-figure amount.

"I was surmising that pro-NAFTA forces in the business community could easily provide that amount for my campaign," she said.

Asked if she had exaggerated the gravity of the situation on the radio, she shrugged and replied, "You're saying that, I'm not saying that. . . . I was lobbied very heavily, let's just put it that way. End of chapter."

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