Maryland Republicans who began this political year thinking they had a chance to unseat Democratic Paul S. Sarbanes must be wondering about their state party's capacity to self-destruct. Montgomery County developer Ruthann Aron's attacks on former Reagan cabinet member Bill Brock have been so negative, so full of personal invective, that the Maryland GOP faces two distasteful prospects:
* Either Mr. Brock wins next Tuesday's primary only to be the target of a Democratic assault that essentially repeats Ms. Aron's criticisms of his extensive resume as a U.S. senator from Tennessee, Republican national chairman, Labor secretary and trade representative under President Reagan and, latterly, as an adviser to foreign governments and a relative newcomer to Maryland;
* Or Ms. Aron, a candidate with negligible public service, emerges as an upset winner who has alienated many GOP stalwarts eager to carry on McKeldin-Mathias traditions that have brought the party statewide triumphs in the past.
Both of these scenarios find Senator Sarbanes sitting in a catbird seat that must be the envy of other Democrats fighting a nationwide Republican tide. Maryland voters could wind up with a campaign that allows the incumbent to glide into a fourth Senate term without serious challenge.
Because we feel the issue in this campaign should be as much about Mr. Sarbanes' record in the Senate as about the qualifications of his rival in the November election, we find the GOP cannibalism regrettable.
Mr. Brock, whom we have endorsed in the primary, has tried to ignore Ms. Aron's charges. But this tactic is dangerous politically if the eventual winner comes out of the primary so mauled that he/she is an easy mark in the general. Last week, Mr. Brock issued a rebuttal to Aron "misrepresentations" about his position on taxes, term limits, senatorial pay and advising foreign governments.
Needless to say, such efforts to lessen the impact of Ms. Aron's negative campaigning made little impact. They rarely do. If GOP leaders behind the Brock candidacy such as former Sens. Charles Mathias and J. Glenn Beall or former Rep. Marjorie Holt wish to give their candidate a boost, they should follow through quickly on plans to speak out publicly and forcefully on his behalf. Otherwise, they face the prospect of another easy Sarbanes victory over their chosen standard-bearer or their party's selection of a candidate whose approach to politics they presumably deplore.