When it comes to discussing major issues, the Republican primary race for U.S. Senate sometimes sounds like an echo chamber.
The three top contenders, all fiscal conservatives, support a woman's right to choose an abortion, oppose an invasion of Haiti, and think health care reform should occur slowly.
As the campaign enters its final two weeks, voters searching for con- trast might do better to look at the candidates' backgrounds to predict their performances on Capitol Hill.
Bill Brock, a millionaire heir to a candy fortune, already has served there as a representative and a senator from Tennessee. A low-key campaigner, he is running on three decades of experience inside the Beltway.
Ruthann Aron, a millionaire developer from Montgomery County, never has held elective office. The feisty businesswoman is campaigning as an outsider and attacking Mr. Brock as a career politician.
C. Ronald Franks, a one-term state delegate from the Eastern Shore, lacks the personal wealth his opponents have used to help finance their campaigns. A dentist from Grasonville, he is running a low-budget bid for government reform.
Widely regarded as the leading candidates, the three are vying to take on 18-year incumbent Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who faces nominal opposition in the Democratic primary. The field of Republicans includes several little-known candidates and a perennial one, retired Baltimore surgeon Ross Z. Pierpont.
Joyce Terhes, chairwoman of the Maryland Republican Party, says the race will turn on who can target the best message to voters and who has the resources to bring them out on election day, Sept. 13.
"Where you have people who are similar in their views on the issues, the style then becomes a very important distinguishing characteristic," she said.
Ms. Aron, 51, is a political newcomer whose public service is limited to the past two years as a member of the Montgomery County Planning Board. Current and former colleagues rate her job performance from "adequate" to "very good" and "outstanding." Former chairman Gus Bauman recalled her as competent, well-prepared and a quick study.
On the stump, Ms. Aron has emphasized her experience as a businesswoman, including nine years as a real estate developer. In a pair of lawsuits, though, former business partners have questioned her honesty.
In 1984, two financiers charged that she had sold an interest in a Rockville shopping center for $200,000 without splitting the profits as they had agreed. Ms. Aron said they had not helped to finance the project as promised.
A Montgomery County jury found her liable for breach of contract and fraud and awarded the plaintiffs $246,606 in damages. Ms. Aron appealed the verdict, then settled the case for about $150,000, she said. The verdict against her was vacated.
In 1990, the trustee of a bankrupt finance company sued Ms. Aron after she sold a 17.5-acre property for a profit of $700,000. The company's trustee said it deserved a portion.
Ms. Aron again argued that the company hadn't provided the financing it had promised. The jury found against her and a co-defendant and awarded the plaintiff $910,000.
The judge set aside the verdict, saying he distrusted testimony by the company's president. Ms. Aron said she settled the suit for $175,000 to avoid another trial.
Ms. Aron said the real estate business is notoriously litigious and noted that a settlement is not an admission of fault. She also suggested that sexism may have played a role in the suits, but refused to elaborate.
"As a woman alone in this business, I had to fight for everything I wanted to keep," Ms. Aron said. "I'm not happy that I was involved in business disputes, but I'm also not ashamed of it."
Some of Ms. Aron's partners say they have had much better experiences with her. Former partner Rick Band described her as a good, honest businesswoman, but a challenge to work with because of her confrontational style.
"Working with her is just exhausting, demanding," he said.
Confrontation has also been a frequent tactic in her political campaign. She has, for instance, repeatedly attacked Mr. Brock as a carpetbagger because he has lived in the state full time only since 1990. A couple of weeks ago, she went to his headquarters to challenge him to a televised debate. Mr. Brock, as she already knew, was raising funds in Tennessee.
"Maybe that's where he should be running from," she said as a television camera rolled.
Mr. Brock has refused to take the bait and has pledged not to counter-attack.
While the two candidates have similar views on issues, they depart on a key theme of her campaign -- term limits. Ms. Aron favors them. Mr. Brock, who served in Congress from 1963 to 1977, does not. Instead, he recommends eliminating political action committees to open the campaign process.
Ms. Aron's position on term limits is partly aimed at Mr. Brock, who has spent much of his adult life building an impressive career in national politics.
As chairman of the Republican National Committee in the late 1970s, he was credited widely with reviving a party beleaguered by Watergate. As trade representative under Ronald Reagan he pushed bilateral, free-trade agreements years before NAFTA.
Relaxed and soft-spoken, Mr. Brock is regarded as an idea man within the party. In contrast to Ms. Aron's quick and often clever retorts, Mr. Brock takes long pauses before answering questions and seems to measure his words carefully.
Among the things he is remembered for in his home state of Tennessee, though, are nasty campaign tactics and scandals involving his campaign finances.
In 1970, he ousted Sen. Al Gore Sr. -- the vice president's father -- in a bitter campaign where some saw racial overtones, a charge Mr. Brock denies.
Based on his broad political experience and personal fortune, Mr. Brock might seem the overwhelming favorite in a field of relative unknowns. The 63-year-old former senator, though, dismisses the notion with a laugh.
"There are those who say my past is my problem," he said.
What Ron Franks lacks in money and name recognition, he has tried to make up for with energy and imagination.
In the first half of 1994, he raised a mere $43,000 -- less than one-tenth the combined sum Mr. Brock and Ms. Aron have
contributed to their own campaigns. Mr. Franks has spent the past few weeks traversing the state in a "whistle-stop" tour with a pickup truck and trailer dressed up as a red steam engine and caboose.
During his four years in Annapolis, he has remained relatively obscure. Mr. Franks, 52, cites a bill to better regulate the spreading of urban sludge on Eastern Shore farms as one of his big accomplishments.
Perhaps a bit more conservative than his opponents, he opposes assault weapons bans, while Mr. Brock and Ms. Aron support them.
Mr. Franks has drawn flak recently for trying to raffle off a AR-15 H-BAR rifle to raise money for his campaign. Congress banned the rifle's sale, transfer and manufacture Thursday under the assault weapons provision of the crime bill.
Mr. Franks now finds himself in the awkward position of raffling off a weapon that will become banned for sale when President Clinton signs the bill after Labor Day.
Gun control advocates have called the fund-raising plan outrageous. Others have questioned its wisdom, given widespread national support for assault weapon bans.
Mr. Frank said his purpose was to point out that bans of assault weapons -- which are linked to a tiny percentage of crime in the United States -- are cosmetic. "I hope I will gain the respect of people for being truthful," he said.
If nothing else, the raffle appears to have helped his fund raising. Mr. Franks said it has brought in about $13,000. The drawing is scheduled for today.
SENATE REPUBLICAN PRIMARY
Family: Husband, Barry. A son and a daughter.
Education: Bachelor's degree from Cornell University, 1964. Master's degree in education from New York University. Law degree from Catholic University, 1980.
Political experience: Montgomery County Planning Board member since 1992.
Other experience: Real estate developer in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Family: Wife, Sandy. Two stepchildren. Four children by his first wife, Laura (deceased).
Education: B.S., Washington and Lee University.
Political experience: Tennessee congressman, 1963-1971. U.S. senator, 1971-1977. Republican National Committee Chairman in late 1970s. U.S. trade representative and secretary of labor in Reagan administration.
Other experience: Former head of the Brock Group, an international trade consulting firm.
C. RONALD FRANKS
Family: Divorced. Two daughters.
Education: Bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland College Park, 1962. Georgetown University Dental School, 1966.
Political experience: State delegate from the Eastern Shore since 1991.
Other experience: Dentist.