Republicans plead, but Morella stays House-bound


WASHINGTON -- For months, some of the Senate's most conservative Republicans courted the Montgomery County congresswoman. Run, they implored her. Run for the Senate.

The arm-twisters included Minority Leader Bob Dole and Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas, John McCain of Arizona and Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming. The unlikely object of their attentions was the most liberal Republican of the 175 GOP members of the House: Rep. Constance A. Morella, from Maryland's 8th District.

The daughter of Italian immigrants who has raised nine children, Mrs. Morella is a staunch supporter of abortion rights. She voted against authorizing President George Bush to use U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. She votes against the Republican Party in the House more often than she supports it.

But her refusal to give up a safe House seat to run for the Senate dismayed her conservative suitors and Maryland Republicans, who have not seen one of their own win a statewide office since former Sen. Charles McC. Mathias' last election, in 1980.

They saw Mrs. Morella as the GOP's best Maryland hope for the Senate -- the person who could topple three-term Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes this year and help the Republicans in their effort to regain control of the U.S. Senate.

"They'd love to get a majority in the Senate," said Mrs. Morella, 63. "They are not looking at whether they agree with Morella's votes," she added. "They want somebody who can win."

With polls suggesting that Mr. Sarbanes is vulnerable, the GOP is searching for strong candidates wherever incumbents appear vulnerable.

"We did a lot of work with her," said David Carney, deputy executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, confirming senatorial efforts to draw her into the race.

Over and over again, Mrs. Morella rebuffed her suitors, refusing to give up her safe seat for a risky race against Mr. Sarbanes. She makes it clear that she doesn't consider him as vulnerable as other Republicans do. But if the three-term incumbent decided not to seek re-election, she might jump into the race, she says.

"If I had problems on the House side, if I really lusted for the Senate, really felt that it would make a bigger difference in what I'm doing here, then I'd take the chance" on running against Mr. Sarbanes, she said in a recent interview.

A former teacher and college instructor, Mrs. Morella says she is content to represent her "terrific district." It has sent her to the House four times, the last two with nearly three-quarters of the vote.

Maryland Republicans also begged Mrs. Morella to run.

"I think everybody looked at her as the No. 1 choice," said Joyce Lyons Terhes, chairwoman of the Maryland Republican Party.

The state suitors included William E. Brock, a former Tennessee senator who now lives in Annapolis. Mr. Brock, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and high-level Reagan administration official, is gearing up his own campaign for the Sarbanes seat and is expected to announce formally late next month.

Mr. Brock admires Mrs. Morella, and said this week, "If she had gotten into the race last summer, I would be working on her behalf now" rather than his own run.

As this election year dawned, the courting seemed to have ended, Mrs. Morella said. But the effort to lure her into the race highlighted the unusual position of this Massachusetts native as a GOP maverick.

Coming from a wealthy district with a history of sending moderate-to-liberal Republicans to Capitol Hill, she is generally liberal on social issues and conservative on fiscal issues. She was the only House Republican in 1993 to vote against her party's position more often than for it, according to Congressional Quarterly.

She did not attend her first Republican national convention until 1992. She went then as an ardent abortion rights supporter who wanted to oppose a platform plank describing abortion as murder.

In some respects, she is more of a Democrat than a Republican.

In fact, Mrs. Morella says she started out as a Democrat and switched parties in 1960, at the age of 29. That was so she could vote in the 6th District GOP primary for Mr. Mathias, whose successful campaign for the congressional seat was run by her husband, Anthony, a lawyer.

When she talks of Republicans whom she has admired, she mentions not only Mr. Mathias, but also Theodore R. McKeldin, the former governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore; former New York Mayor John V. Lindsay; former New York Sen. Kenneth B. Keating, and former Massachusetts Sen. Edward W. Brooke.

While the mainstream of the GOP has moved to the right since 1960, leaving her behind, Mrs. Morella is considered an ideal statewide candidate in heavily Democratic Maryland -- the state that gave President Clinton his biggest plurality in 1992, after his home state of Arkansas.

Soft-spoken, with a hearty laugh and a self-deprecating sense of humor, she has an ethnic background, a large family (six children are the offspring of her late sister who, she says, "were potty trained when I got them") and positions on many social issues that would give her broad appeal in traditionally Democratic areas of the state.

Saying that her 1960 switch to the Republican Party had nothing to do with political ambitions, she adds: "I probably would have stayed a Democrat if I wanted to run for office." Then, laughing, she says, "Be careful what you write about that."

With seats on the Post Office and Civil Service Committee (which looks after the interests of federal civil servants, a major part of her constituency) and the Science, Space and Technology Committee (which oversees high-tech and research issues, an important issue for a district rich in government and private high-tech firms), she has also concentrated on women's issues in the House.

Occasionally, her interests lead her into the unusual. Last month, she was one of 11 members of the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues -- and the only Republican -- who took up the cause of Las Vegas cocktail waitresses, asking Barbra Streisand to meet with some of them who had complained of "offensive practices" by the chief executive of the MGM Grand Hotel.

Last summer she was a sponsor of legislation aimed at preventing advertising in space, a bill introduced in response to a Georgia company's announcement that it might launch mile-high billboards.

Despite her belief that it is a serious issue, she is not above making a self-mocking comment.

"It really is spacey stuff," she says with a laugh.

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