Her critics make various complaints about Ellen R. Sauerbrey, but no one has ever accused her of lacking conviction.
During 16 years in the Maryland House of Delegates, Mrs. Sauerbrey has delivered a consistent message of the need to shrink government, cut taxes and get tough on crime -- a dissenting voice that rarely succeeded amid the Democratic majority, or even with moderate Republicans.
But the House minority leader thinks Maryland is changing, is ready for a fresh, conservative wind to blow through Annapolis. And she believes the state is ready for her as its governor.
"As I look at Maryland today and see what are the concerns that people have, it seems to me that the body politic has moved in my direction," Mrs. Sauerbrey said last week.
The Baltimore County legislator is running second in the three-way Sept. 13 Republican primary for governor, behind Helen Delich Bentley, the 2nd District congresswoman favored to win.
But Mrs. Sauerbrey's steady, hard work on the stump over the last 15 months seems to be paying off.
She jumped within striking distance of Mrs. Bentley in a poll released this week, nearly doubling her standing of just a month ago.
Mrs. Sauerbrey displays a solid understanding of state government that is a strong point of her campaign.
She delivered a crisp, impressive performance in Monday night's televised debate, using it to showcase her command of state issues.
She is a prim, but vocal, 56-year-old former high school science teacher who has never walked away from a fight in the House. Her tenacity has earned her points with GOP colleagues, but makes her an annoying ideologue to many Democrats.
Mrs. Bentley -- who leads Mrs. Sauerbrey 44 percent to 27 percent in this week's poll -- looms large on her horizon.
Although there is a third Republican candidate -- William S. Shepard, a retired foreign service from Montgomery County who was the party's 1990 nominee -- Mrs. Bentley is the one to beat.
The congresswoman is viewed by many Republicans as providing their party with its best shot at capturing the State House in 28 years because of her wide name recognition, proven fund-raising ability and her perceived "electability" in November -- so important to the GOP in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1.
Mrs. Bentley, waging a classic front-runner campaign, has been staying out of sight and away from most issues.
That strategy left Mrs. Sauerbrey with little choice but to attack -- a tactic that caused a little squirming among party regulars unaccustomed to contested primaries.
In speeches and in press conferences, she criticized Mrs. Bentley, claiming that the congresswoman consistently voted against "the Republican agenda" and was a favorite of organized labor, and that her "flip-flops and misrepresentations" would cost the GOP the governor's race if she were its nominee.
Mrs. Sauerbrey also has hammered Mrs. Bentley for her relationship with Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who encouraged the congresswoman to run for the State House.
Hard-hitting radio spot
Most recently, Mrs. Sauerbrey weighed in with an on-air broadside -- a 60-second radio spot using sound-alikes of Mrs. Bentley and Mr. Schaefer complaining about Mrs. Sauerbrey's proposal to cut income taxes.
Mrs. Bentley has declined to respond to the charges.
But some Republicans worry privately that by hammering the congresswoman, Mrs. Sauerbrey is hurting the party's chances in a general election race they believe will be waged by Mrs. Bentley. Mrs. Sauerbrey strongly disagrees.
"I don't believe that, because I don't think Helen's electable," Mrs. Sauerbrey said.
"I also believe that Republicans are becoming mature in the state and believe we can behave like the Democrats always have behaved -- fight it out in the primary."
While much of the campaign's energy and money has been spent attempting to deflate Mrs. Bentley's candidacy, Mrs. Sauerbrey has continued to highlight the issues.
The centerpiece of her campaign is an overhaul of the tax system. She has promised to cut personal income taxes by 24 percent over four years -- 6 percent in the first year -- while also addressing the multimillion-dollar budget shortfall facing the state.
Under her tax plan, she says, a family of four earning $30,000 and taking the standard deduction would save as much as $220 the first year.
Such a dramatic and ambitious program could require cuts, in the first year alone, of nearly $500 million from the state's projected $7 billion general fund budget.
Mrs. Sauerbrey says it can be done by cutting state government across the board.
But her fiscal plan, formulated by a kitchen cabinet of financial experts and academics, has been widely criticized by other candidates and state budget officials as being drastic and impractical.
While fiscal matters are her campaign's main selling point, she also touches a chord a little closer to voters with her proposals for getting tough on crime.
Mrs. Sauerbrey, who has introduced 17 bills on parole over the last 15 years, wants to eliminate parole for violent offenders and require that they serve 85 percent of their sentences.
In keeping with her tough law-and-order campaign theme, Mrs. Sauerbrey picked as her running mate Paul H. Rappaport, 60, an Ellicott City lawyer who is a former Maryland State Police major and Howard County police chief.
Since becoming House minority leader in 1987, Mrs. Sauerbrey has assailed the "tax and spend policies" of Governor Schaefer, and she has refused to play ball with the Democratic legislative leadership.
As a result, she has been open to criticism as ineffective. For instance, only 26 of the scores of bills for which she has been the prime sponsor have made it out of the legislature and been signed into law.
She maintains that those 26 bills do not tell the whole story.
"As minority leader, I certainly gained the reputation of being the fiscal watchdog, the person who was constantly demanding that we abide by some kind of rational fiscal restraint," Mrs. Sauerbrey said.
"The measure of a good legislator is not necessarily getting a lot of bills passed," she said. "The measure of a good legislator is often trying to stop bad things from happening -- and I've killed more than one bad bill on the floor with an amendment."
She is credited with being one of the architects of a policy that has restricted growth in the state budget. It began with her attempt to amend that goal into the Maryland Constitution.
The proposed amendment failed, but a policy establishing voluntary "spending affordability limits" -- recommended caps on growth of state government, based on the growth of personal income -- was adopted by the General Assembly.
Her blinders-on approach also paid off during the state's 1992 budget crisis, when her noisy opposition and alternative spending plans forced legislative leaders to make deeper cuts and raise fewer taxes than they might otherwise have done -- something Democratic lawmakers begrudgingly admit.
Not all convinced
But not everyone is convinced that rigidity is a gubernatorial quality.
"The art of politics is the art of compromise, of getting things done," said David R. Blumberg, chairman of the Baltimore Republican Central Committee and a longtime supporter of Mrs. Bentley.
"While many applaud Ellen for her heartfelt ideological bent, it can be counterproductive in the real world of politics."
Nevertheless, Mrs. Sauerbrey is encouraged by the finger-in-the-wind politics of this gubernatorial campaign, which has seen other candidates in both parties swing toward the middle and right.
"In the last 16 years, I didn't see any of the gubernatorial candidates fighting for tough crime measures. I didn't see them out front trying to control spending. I didn't see them out front trying to prevent Maryland from adopting a regulatory structure that made us noncompetitive," she said.
"These are the things I've been talking about for years," she said. "I think what has really happened is that the political climate and attitudes have moved in my direction, and I've got the record that says I've been there on these issues."
Tomorrow: Republican William S. Shepard and Democrat Mary H. Boergers
ELLEN R. SAUERBREY
Home: Baldwin, Baltimore County.
Family: Husband, Wilmer. No children.
Education: B.A., English and biology, Western Maryland College.
Experience: Maryland House of Delegates, 1979-present. House minority leader, 1987-present. Former high school science teacher.
POSITIONS ON ISSUES:
Taxes/budget: Has pledged to cut personal income taxes by 24 percent over four years, including 6 percent in the first year. Says cut would spur economic growth, generating new tax revenue. Also would freeze state hiring, except for prisons, and make cuts in government agencies across the board.
Economic development: Says she would make state more "business friendly" by lowering taxes and cutting regulations. Would eliminate tax on capital gains that are reinvested in Maryland companies. Would cut settlement costs for homebuyers and eliminate transfer tax for first-time homebuyers. Would create "Business Roundtable," made up of Cabinet secretaries, key legislators and business people, to improve business climate in state.
Crime: Would eliminate parole for all violent offenders and require that they serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Would broaden state's five-year mandatory sentence for people convicted of violent crimes with a handgun to include any type of gun and work to restrict ability to plea bargain this charge. Would prohibit public defenders from pursuing an appeal on behalf of criminals who waive their right to appeal. Supports death penalty.
Gun control: Has consistently voted against gun control, dismissing it as ineffective in limiting crime.
Abortion: Has sided with anti-abortion forces in the legislature, but says she would not attempt to change state abortion rights law approved by voters in 1992 referendum. Would not seek to change current language restricting use of state Medicaid money to pay for abortions for poor women. Would "seek to reduce the number of abortions" by requiring that women be given information about alternatives when seeking an abortion.
Education: Would "reduce amount of education dollar going to local bureaucracy and get it into the classrooms." Proposes tax credits of up to $2,000 for low-income families to allow children to be sent to private schools. Wants state to adopt alternative school programs that give parents and teachers more control over curriculum and operation of public schools, including opening charter schools and hiring private companies to manage some schools.