Common wisdom in Maryland political circles a year ago decreed that Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes was vulnerable at last, that his amazing string of election victories over the past 30 years might finally be broken. This speculation was based on an assumption that he would be opposed by a big-name Republican -- perhaps one of the state's two GOP congresswomen, Constance Morella or Helen Bentley. But Ms. Morella decided to keep her safe seat in Montgomery County's Eighth District, and Ms. Bentley opted to run for governor.
The situation today finds Senator Sarbanes serenely confident of re-election. Well-financed, well-known throughout the state, well-ensconced against only token opposition in the Democratic nTC primary, he surveys a Republican field of comparative unknowns. Yet the current common wisdom, which foresees an automatic Sarbanes victory in the Sept. 13 primary and a comfortable triumph in the November general, may also be off-kilter.
All the signs indicate that this could be "a Republican year" nationally, with the GOP within reach of a Senate majority and due to pick up a greater-than-average number of seats in the House. The question is whether the expected Republican tide can reach as far as Paul Sarbanes.
Three Maryland Republicans, unlikely candidates all, have emerged as front-runners eager to challenge the Baltimore Democrat. Individually and collectively they are more impressive than GOP candidates of the past decade. And in their willingness to question Mr. Sarbanes' liberal voting record, his close ties to organized labor and his propensity to lie low except in election years, they are doing their party a real service.
Of the three leading contenders for the Republican nomination, only C. Ronald Franks, 51, a dentist from Grasonville on the Eastern Shore, has held elective office in Maryland. A one-term member of the House of Delegates with a conservative profile that fits his home constituency, he discusses national and international issues with an easy fluency. His appeal to rural Republicans will be enhanced by his identification with the National Rifle Association. The controversial Franks decision to auction off a semi-automatic weapon could be a sleeper gambit in the present election.
If Dr. Franks engages the loyalties of rural Marylanders, Ruthann Aron, a millionaire Montgomery County developer, is clearly a product of affluent suburbia. Combative, ambitious, caustic in her comments about "career politicians" she identifies as her natural enemies, she personifies the entrepreneurial spirit and its impatience with governmental impediments at every level.
Ms. Aron could very well win this primary. She will tap into the Montgomery Republican base, which accounts for more than a quarter of the votes cast in GOP primaries. Her economic philosophy seems much in tune with the go-go spirit of the Reagan era but on the abortion issue she is definitely in the pro-choice camp (as are her key opponents). Though Ms. Aron's only public service has been rendered as an appointed member of the Montgomery County Planning Board, she adroitly tries to make this an asset by describing herself as a would-be "citizen legislator."
The third top candidate in the Republican list -- and The Sun's choice for the GOP nomination -- is William E. Brock III, former senator from Tennessee, former Republican national chairman, former special trade representative and secretary of labor in the Reagan cabinet. Should he win a return ticket to Capitol Hill, Mr. Brock would be one for the record books -- the only directly elected senator to serve two different states in history.
Because of his Tennessee roots and because he practiced a kind of dual citizenship between Washington, D.C., and Maryland until just a few years ago, Mr. Brock is vulnerable to the "carpetbagger" charge. Yet he has lived in Maryland or just beyond its borders for more than 30 years. He knows the region well, relishes his Annapolis homestead and has a far greater appreciation for the needs of a troubled urban center like Baltimore than either of his chief opponents.
The more serious question about Mr. Brock's candidacy concerns his conservative voting record as a young legislator from Tennessee. He voted against the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, and was in the vanguard of the conservative Republican uprising in the South that began with the Barry Goldwater election. This newspaper, however, is convinced that Bill Brock has changed. He regrets his civil rights vote, has earned the praise of erstwhile foes in organized labor and has been active in promoting causes to end social breakdown in the inner cities. At 63, he has matured to the point where he can fit easily into the moderate Republican tradition of Theodore R. McKeldin and Charles McC. Mathias.
We believe that of all the Republican hopefuls, Mr. Brock is best qualified to conduct a campaign that might force Mr. Sarbanes ** to discuss his record in detail instead of just coasting to another triumph. Mr. Brock is a free-trader; Mr. Sarbanes a protectionist. He backs the independence of the Federal Reserve, Mr. Sarbanes wants the Fed accountable to Congress. He is a fiscal conservative; Mr. Sarbanes has a liberal spending record. Mr. Brock knows national issues and has the national stature to demand answers from Mr. Sarbanes, who is slated to head the Senate Banking Committee if re-elected.
What the Republican contender still lacks, however, is an effective campaign to bring his views and personality vividly before the electorate. Nonetheless, Mr. Brock deserves the nod of Republican voters, just as Mr. Sarbanes is the obvious Democratic selection in the Sept. 13 primary.