Bentley's big night


TONIGHT'S the night it's better to be Helen than Ellen. And for Helen Delich Bentley, it'll be not only a coming out party but a chance to strut her stuff as a Republican candidate for governor.

To make the run, the 70-year-old doyenne of the GOP is giving up a safe seat in Congress that she's occupied for 10 years. To help persuade her that she's doing the right thing, a 70-member host committee is sponsoring a fund-raiser at the BWI Marriott. The price is $200 to schmooze and $1,000 for a VIP photo with Mrs. Bentley.

What's unusual, though, is the mix of hot shots usually associated with Democrats: developer Leonard Attman, attorney Edward Birrane, who was state insurance commissioner in the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel; developer David Cordish, a Department of Housing and Urban Development official in the Carter administration; developers Henry Knott Jr. and James Knott; developer Ralph DeChiaro; and publicist George S. Wills, who once headed Maryland's Young Democrats.

Mrs. Bentley needs the lift. She's been quiet lately after two embarrassing bloopers within days after announcing her candidacy last November.

First, she announced she would vote for the Brady gun control bill. Then she voted against it. When the discrepancy was discovered, Mrs. Bentley blamed the computer. But the computer's custodian said the fail-safe computer never makes a mistake. So Mrs. Bentley tried to recover by inserting a statement in the Congressional Record saying she supports the Brady Bill.

As if that weren't enough, 24 hours later came blunder No. 2. Mrs. Bentley said on a local radio talk show she'd been offered a six-figure contribution to her campaign for governor if she'd vote for NAFTA.

But once again, Mrs. Bentley quickly backed away from her slip-of-the-lip. Her aides' attempts to explain away the misstep didn't work, either. Finally, Mrs. Bentley issued a four-paragraph statement in which she flatly denied ever being offered money for her vote.

Tonight's massive display of green power could be a big step toward resuscitating Mrs. Bentley's parked-and-idling campaign. Yet there's a persistent and worrisome buzz trailing Mrs. Bentley, like tin cans tied to a cat's tail. It's that Mrs. Bentley is not a serious candidate and that she might change her mind again and decide to run for her 2nd District seat.

Early trial heats show Mrs. Bentley running well ahead of her two rivals, Del. Ellen Sauerbrey of Baltimore County and retired diplomat William S. Shepard, of Montgomery County. She's out-pacing Democrats as well, including Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg in the Baltimore County home base they share. But polls this early reveal name recognition more than any sure-fire political standing.

First, Mrs. Bentley has to get through the Republican primary. To be sure, primaries are tricky affairs. More than half the registered Republicans in Maryland are in four counties -- Baltimore County (105,614), Montgomery (134,766), Anne Arundel (78,900) and Howard (40,542) -- of a total roster of 708,616.

Worse, only 20 percent to 25 percent of registered Republicans bother to vote in primaries, and those tend to be ditto-head conservatives.

Mrs. Bentley is as rigid as a robot on the anti-abortion issue, which could damage her greatly in pro-choice Montgomery County. Couple that with the fact that Mr. Shepard will make a decent showing in his home county as well as in Prince George's County because of the howling anti-Baltimore sentiment in the Washington suburbs.

Moreover, the Maryland Rifle and Pistol Association, which claims 1.25 million members, is smiling favorably upon Mrs. Sauerbrey because of her work against gun-control legislation in the General Assembly. Mrs. Sauerbrey's performance as House minority leader and her work with anti-tax and cut-the-budget banshees also could turbocharge her campaign for governor.

The rules of politics are the rules of the marketplace. So money -- lots of it -- could provide the magic ingredient for Mrs. Bentley's campaign. And she's no slouch at raising it.

In fact, Mrs. Bentley's suffering from an embarrassment of riches. She has $100,000 left over in her congressional campaign bank account that state law prevents her from using in a campaign for governor and federal law prohibits her from spending on herself.

So tonight's brassy, sold-out affair could be the launch that Mrs. Bentley needs to give fresh impetus to her campaign for governor. Campaign operatives say they expect to raise at least $100,000 at tonight's hoedown.

That's enough pixie dust to give Helen a second chance over Ellen.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes a column on Maryland politics.

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