Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey is frustrated. She can't seem to get the front-runner in the race for the GOP nomination, U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, out into the open where she can get a clear shot at her.
Mrs. Bentley's political handlers, Mrs. Sauerbrey complained last week, are afraid the 70-year-old Baltimore County congresswoman will say something in public that she will regret.
"Their tactic is very clear to me: The campaign people are keeping her out of sight and under wraps," Mrs. Sauerbrey groused.
What set off Mrs. Sauerbrey, the Republican leader of the Maryland House, was Mrs. Bentley's last-minute cancellation of an appearance at a Howard County GOP candidates' forum, part of a pattern of erratic appearances at such events. Mrs. Bentley's absence from that forum and some others leaves her open to charges that she is hiding, dodging the issues. Her aides flatly deny it.
"Mrs. Bentley has made it clear from day one that that her official duties will always take precedence over politics," said Gordon Hensley, a senior campaign consultant. "We do like to remind people that Mrs. Bentley is the only (GOP) candidate with a full-time job."
Mr. Hensley added, "The Bentley for Governor campaign is under no obligation to help our opponents jump-start their campaigns."
That last remark hints at the reality of the situation. Mrs. Bentley, as Mrs. Sauerbrey well knows, is waging a classic front-runner's campaign and so far she has been doing it very successfully.
She leads her opponents by a 4-to-1 ratio, according to a poll conducted in mid-June for The Sun and other news organizations by Mason-Dixon Political Media Research. Mrs. Bentley received 41 percent of the vote, Mrs. Sauerbrey 11 percent, and William S. Shepard 9 percent.
A little distance in both time (eight years) and space (2,000 miles) may give some perspective on Mrs. Bentley's strategy as well as highlight a few potential pitfalls.
In 1986, Rep. John S. McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war, was a prohibitive favorite to defeat Democrat Richard Kimball in a Senate race in Arizona.
The contest seemed all-but-over a year before the election when Bruce Babbitt, the popular Democratic governor, said he would not enter the field. Recalled Jay Smith, Mr. McCain's campaign manager, "We knew McCain was going to be the next senator if he didn't shoot himself in the foot."
The problem was Mr. McCain himself. Like Mrs. Bentley, he has a bad temper. He also had spent 5 1/2 years in the Hanoi Hilton, more than half of it in solitary. He had little tolerance for Mr. Kimball's charges, especially taunts that he was afraid of his opponent. He began to overreact. When Mr. Kimball charged him with insensitivity for jokingly referring to Leisure World as Seizure World, Mr. McCain spent weeks denying the charge, rather than simply apologizing and moving on.
Next came the allegation from Mr. Kimball that Mr. McCain had been "bought and paid for" by corporate fat cats and their political action committees, a standard accusation from an underfunded candidate.
Mr. McCain called a press conference and angrily denounced his opponent for waging "one of the most sloppy and dirty campaigns in Arizona history," an overblown reaction that kept the issue alive.
Campaign manager Smith explained the facts of life to Mr. McCain. When you're an underdog, you want to get under the skin of your opponent. So you needle him, make him react to you. If you get lucky, he says something stupid. That's what Mr. Kimball's doing to you, and you're playing right into his hands. Mr. McCain conceded the point -- until the next time. Televised campaign debates were scheduled for mid-October, but Mr. Kimball was agitating for earlier face-offs and more of them. He accused Mr. McCain of ducking him. "I want to do it, Jay," an infuriated Mr. McCain told his campaign manager when a radio )) station tried to set up an early debate.
Mr. Smith argued against it. Winning candidates don't let their opponents goad them into changing their strategy, he told Mr. McCain. It's like a military operation. Let's say you're on a bombing mission over Hanoi. You've got your course to target, right? You know how you're going to get there, how you're going to get out. You don't scrap those plans and decide on a different course just because the North Vietnamese say you're scared to go that way, do you? Mr. McCain finally bought the argument, restrained himself -- and won going away.