The face-off will pit Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening -- who was headed for a convincing primary victory -- against one of two veteran women legislators from Baltimore County who were locked in an election night battle that drew close only in the final days of the campaign.
Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, the pre-election favorite, was struggling last night to beat back the 11th-hour charge of Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the Republican leader of the Maryland House.
Mrs. Bentley, a 70-year-old former newspaperwoman and the choice of most party leaders, more closely fits the moderate profile of the few Republicans who have been successful in statewide races in heavily Democratic Maryland over the years.
On the surface, the strongly conservative Mrs. Sauerbrey, 57, resembles earlier party stalwarts who have won GOP primaries but displayed little general election appeal.
But Mrs. Sauerbrey, if she were to win the nomination, would have demonstrated the ability to mount a strong, well-organized campaign against a better-known foe with greater financial resources, making predictions of her quick political demise risky and premature.
She has modeled herself after the successful Republican gubernatorial candidates of the 1990s, especially New Jersey's Christine Todd Whitman, who lowered taxes to stimulate the economy as Mrs. Sauerbrey has said that she would do.
Pre-election polls matching Mr. Glendening against Mrs. Bentley produced dead heats until the most recent, late last month, when the Prince George's County executive for the first time outpaced the five-term congresswoman, 43 percent to 37 percent.
Mrs. Sauerbrey seemed such a long shot until the last few weeks that no independent pollster matched her against any of the Democrats.
The Democratic advantage
Mr. Glendening begins the general election campaign with a built-in advantage -- Maryland's 2-to-1 Democratic edge in voter registration, a margin that has narrowed over the past decade but remains an imposing obstacle for any GOP candidate seeking statewide office.
The Democratic nominee's staggering victory also propels him into the general election race with enormous political momentum, another major advantage in the brief, 56-day sprint to the wire that ends on Election Day, Nov. 8.
However, Mr. Glendening faces the daunting task of bringing together a party that has gone through a hard-fought and often mean-spirited primary campaign punctuated by negative radio and television ads that have ranged in content from ridicule to rhetorical knee-capping.
In addition, he must defuse fears in the still-potent Baltimore area that his election would mean a radical shift of power away from this region to the rapidly growing suburban Washington counties, which have not elected a governor since Oden Bowie of Prince George's more than a century ago.
Mrs. Bentley is not any Republican. An enormously popular figure in her vote-rich Baltimore County political base, she seems as much at home at a Democratic bull roast in blue-collar Dundalk as at a GOP women's club lunch in tony Ruxton, perhaps even more so.
If nominated, she could benefit from her long friendship with the incumbent Democratic governor, William Donald Schaefer, with whom she shares strong pro-business sentiments and who despises Mr. Glendening, as he does most of the other candidates who had hoped to succeed him.
A double-edged sword
An overt show of support by Mr. Schaefer for Mrs. Bentley could be a double-edged sword. He remains popular in much of Baltimore City, where he reigned as mayor for 15 years, but in his second term he has generated great hostility in some parts of the state.
At the same time, because of his longtime relationship with the Baltimore business community, he retains the ability to raise substantial amounts of money for the candidate of his choice.
The governor refused to disclose his campaign plans yesterday, but hinted broadly that his heart belongs to Mrs. Bentley, as it did to the Republican incumbent president, George Bush, in 1992.
"I voted for a Republican in the last election and my vote's looking smarter and smarter, isn't it?" Mr. Schaefer told reporters as he cast an early morning vote at his West Baltimore precinct. "It's important to have someone you have faith in. . . . It's a tough job."
Mrs. Bentley or Mrs. Sauerbrey, like Mr. Glendening, would be the survivor of a fractious primary battle and would have to unite an even more polarized party. More importantly, the winner will have to extend her appeal to Democrats in the Washington suburbs, notably populous Montgomery County, where the race may well be decided on Election Day.
The state GOP, hoping to salve the wounds of months of intraparty strife, plans a unity brunch today in Annapolis for all statewide candidates, winners and losers.
"It's a sign of a party that's maturing to have these kinds of competitive [primary] races, but now let's put our money where our mouth is and unify," said Joyce L. Terhes, the state party chair.
Spiro T. Agnew was the last Republican elected governor of Maryland, besting George P. Mahoney in 1966 as Democrats defected in force from their maverick standard-bearer because of a platform viewed by many as tinged with racism.
Since then, the GOP has failed to muster a candidate capable of mounting a credible challenge to the Democratic hammerlock on the State House, even during the heady days of the Reagan and Bush presidencies, when Republicans elsewhere were reversing historic voting patterns.
Either prospective standard-bearer must contend with Mr. Glendening's fund-raising prowess -- as of late August he had raised some $3.2 million. But Mrs. Sauerbrey, because she has chosen to participate in this year's one-time-only public campaign financing program, would have about $1 million available as of this morning.
Baltimore key for Glendening
In yesterday's primary, Mr. Glendening, 52, built an overwhelming lead in his suburban Washington political base, out-dueled two major Baltimore-area candidates to a stand-off in this region and picked up enough votes elsewhere to cruise to victory.
His victory was keyed in Baltimore City, where he was expected to run well ahead of his rivals, thanks in part to the organization of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who endorsed Mr. Glendening in April and turned out the vote for him yesterday.
With 21 percent of 1,702 precincts counted, Mr. Glendening led the four-person Democratic field with 50 percent of the vote, 33 percentage points more than his closest rival, a resounding margin that affirmed the high standing he has enjoyed in the polls for months.
He was followed by Baltimore state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski with 17 percent. Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg of Pikesville and state Sen. Mary H. Boergers of Montgomery County had 14 percent each.
"This is a very, very exciting moment for the state of Maryland," said Mr. Glendening as he claimed victory about 10:45 p.m. before cheering supporters at the University of Maryland College Park. He pledged to offer the state an "inclusive" administration that would reach out to Republicans and independents, as well as Democrats.
Steinberg among also-rans
For the also-rans, yesterday's results marked an end to campaigns begun with high, if in some cases unrealistic hopes while drawing the curtain, at least for the moment, on the political careers of four longtime elected officials.
Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, the former Democratic front-runner, saw his lead in the polls and his ability to raise money dwindle, then disappear amid a series of campaign mishaps and staff upheavals that seemed to raise questions in the minds of voters about his ability to govern the state.
Mr. Steinberg has held the state's second-highest office for eight years. Since 1991, he has been estranged from Mr. Schaefer, his running mate in 1986 and 1990. Before that, he served 20 years in the state Senate, the last four as president.
Also abruptly shorn of office were two veteran members of the General Assembly -- Mr. Miedusiewski, after almost 20 years, and Ms. Boergers, after 13 years.
The primary also ended the quixotic quest of Mr. Shepard, who cheerfully shouldered his party's banner in 1990 when better-known Republicans refused to challenge Mr. Schaefer. Mr. Shepard had campaigned almost nonstop since then in the misguided belief that his loyalty would be rewarded when the GOP finally had a chance of winning.
Mr. Glendening extended an olive branch to his defeated rivals. But it was not immediately clear that all of his opponents would be open to his appeal. A seemingly embittered Mr. Steinberg had declined to say during the campaign whether he would support the party nominee, although Mr. Miedusiewski and Mrs. Boergers had said that they would.
Mr. Glendening began detailed preparation for the race in November 1990, a few weeks after he was elected to a third four-year term as Prince George's executive.
In the ensuing years, he fine-tuned his strategy, put together a team of political professionals, collected an impressive array of endorsements and built an intimidating war chest that exceeded the money raised by all other candidates for governor combined.
Bentley's late entry
Mrs. Bentley's entrance into the Republican contest bore no resemblance to Mr. Glendening's steady march to the nomination. She agonized for months before finally jumping in last November, well after Mrs. Sauerbrey and Mr. Shepard had committed themselves to the race.
The election was shaped nearly as much by those who didn't run as by those who did, notably Mr. Schmoke, a Democrat, and Robert R. Neall, the Anne Arundel County executive, a Republican. Both were widely expected to run and had strong support, but decided last fall against the race.
To hear primary results, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a Touch-Tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6500 after you hear the greeting.
To receive the results by fax, dial (410) 332-6123. Enter information number 5500.