One-time front-runner Melvin A. Steinberg, after weeks of high-profile miscues, has faded to fourth in the race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, while Parris N. Glendening has widened his lead and be- gun pulling away from the rest of the field, a new poll shows.
Mr. Steinberg, Maryland's lieutenant governor for the past eight years, has plummeted perilously close to single digits, commanding the support of only 11 percent of likely Democratic primary voters, according to the poll.
Among Republican voters surveyed, U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley continues to outdistance her two rivals by more than 30 percentage points.
In a head-to-head match-up of the Democratic and Republican leaders, Mrs. Bentley, a five-term congresswoman who represents a Baltimore County-based district, enjoys a narrow three-point edge, 41 to 38, over Mr. Glendening, Prince George's county executive since 1982.
The gap is within the poll's margin of error, which means the
front-runners remain virtually neck and neck, promising the most competitive general election in decades barring major shifts before the Sept. 13 party primaries.
The telephone poll was conducted July 15-17 by Mason-Dixon Political-Media Research of Columbia for The Sun and other news organizations. The 839 respondents, randomly selected, said they regularly vote.
The margin of error in the broadest statewide sample -- which included Democrats, Republicans and others -- is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Among Democrats, the error margin is 4.9 points; for Republicans, it is 6.4 points.
Mr. Glendening, who surged into the lead for the first time in last month's poll, increased his support from 31 percent to 38 percent. His greatest strength was in the suburban Washington counties of Prince George's and Montgomery and among black voters.
Baltimore state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski displaced Mr. Steinberg as Mr. Glendening's closest rival, gaining the backing of 16 percent of Democratic voters and more than doubling his 7 percent standing of a month ago.
But Mr. Miedusiewski, like fellow Baltimore-area candidate Mr. Steinberg, is virtually bereft of support in the Washington suburbs, where both men registered a token 3 percent #i compared with Mr. Glendening's 65 percent.
By contrast, Mr. Glendening trails Mr. Miedusiewski by a razor-thin 23 percent to 24 percent in the Baltimore region, with Mr. Steinberg of Pikesville running third with a paltry 15 percent in what should be the area of his greatest strength.
The all-woman ticket headed by Montgomery County state Sen. Mary H. Boergers showed some movement in the polls over the past month, from 10 percent to 12 percent but has failed to generate any significant momentum.
Bentley support surges
On the GOP side, Mrs. Bentley increased her support from 41 percent to 48 percent in the past month, leaving two rivals, state Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey of Baltimore County and retired diplomat William S. Shepard of Potomac languishing at 14 percent and 11 percent, respectively.
The size of the undecided vote has begun to shrink significantly. For Democrats, it is down to 23 percent and among Republicans, 27 percent -- an indication that with less than two months until the primaries voters have finally begun paying attention to the race.
Other than Mr. Steinberg, every major candidate in both parties showed some increase in support.
At 11 percent, Mr. Steinberg was not part of the trend, plunging a full 10 percentage points from June when he had the support of 21 percent of Democrats. In a February Mason-Dixon poll, the lieutenant governor led Mr. Glendening 28 percent to 19 percent.
Mason-Dixon's president, Brad Coker, said that Mr. Steinberg's performance in recent weeks has raised questions in the minds of voters about his ability to govern.
"If he can't run his own campaign," said Mr. Coker, "how can voters reasonably expect him to run the state?"
Support for Mr. Steinberg, the only statewide elected official in the race, has been eroding for months as a result of a campaign operation victimized by recurrent staff turnovers and an array of other problems.
Attempts yesterday to reach Mr. Steinberg or a spokesman for his campaign were unsuccessful. He is said to be putting together a new campaign team and preparing to launch a wave of television commercials that he may have to finance himself because of declining fund-raising prospects.
Glendening spokesman David Seldin said of the poll results, "Parris' strategy of bringing the state together and focusing on -- the issues is clearly working."
Mrs. Bentley's campaign press secretary, Key Kidder, said, "The numbers show that Helen is breaking out and the undecideds are clearly moving her way."
Jim Brochin, Mr. Miedusiewski's campaign manager, cited the movement of his boss into second place, albeit 22 points behind Mr. Glendening. "This poll makes it clear that the race for governor has become a two-person race. It's Parris vs. American Joe," he said.
Mason-Dixon's Mr. Coker said that Mr. Miedusiewski has made gains, but faces rough sledding with Mr. Steinberg in the race, splitting the vote in the Baltimore region.
The Baltimore lawmaker may have another problem. Mr. Miedusiewski has shown himself to be "an attractive and articulate candidate," said Mr. Coker, but voters who only know his name picture "someone in a sleeveless shirt polishing up his bowling ball."
Mr. Miedusiewski changed his name to the name of his family's East Baltimore bar two decades ago to enhance his chances for election to the House of Delegates.
Kevin S. Keefe, Ms. Boergers' campaign manager, said: "We've had a steady climb, and we expect to continue our steady climb. When our ads hit, I think we'll see our numbers shoot up rather dramatically."
Richards R. Badmington, a spokesman for Mrs. Sauerbrey, the Republican leader in the Maryland House, said her campaign will persist in spreading the Sauerbrey message of fiscal conservatism while portraying Mrs. Bentley as a big spender.
Mr. Shepard, the GOP's 1990 standard bearer, said that the poll does not reflect voter commitment to Mrs. Bentley, only that her name is better known than his or Mrs. Sauerbrey's.
POLL FINDINGS IN THE RACE FOR GOVERNOR
THE PARTY PRIMARIES:
With less than two months before the Sept. 13 primaries, Democrats and Republicans were asked their preferences among the candidates for governor. Since last month, Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening has increased his lead among the Democrats. The Republican favorite, Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, also increased her lead in her party. On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg dropped from second to fourth place. The numbers of undecided voters
dropped among both Democrats and Republicans.
THE GENERAL ELECTION:
Both Democrats and Republicans were asked to choose between the front-runners, Mr. Glendening and Mrs. Bentley, if the general election were held now. Since last month, Mrs. Bentley has pulled ahead of Mr. Glendening.
HOW THE POLL WAS CONDUCTED
The poll was conducted by Mason-Dixon Political Media Research Inc. for The Sun and other news organizations. A total of 839 registered voters statewide, who said they vote regularly in state elections, were selected at random. They were interviewed by phone July 15 through July 17.
For questions posed of all 839 respondents, the margin of error is no more than plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The figure is 4.9 percentage points for questions asked only of likely Democratic voters, and 6.4 percentage points for likely Republican voters. That means that there is a 95 percent probability that the "true" answer for the entire population falls within those ranges.