Have Maryland Republicans blown it again? Opportunity was knocking as the year began. Washington pundits were listing Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes as a vulnerable incumbent: liberal, pro-labor, government activist, an insider, a Clintonite. Pollsters were registering high negatives, some the product of his reputation as the "stealth senator" content to stay out of public view.
Yet here we are, just 16 days before the Nov. 8 elections, and Mr. Sarbanes enjoys a comfortable lead over his Republican challenger, William E. Brock III.
The senator sees no need to debate his opponent, no need to defend his record or spell out his positions on the important issues of the day. After 28 consecutive years in elected office, as a member of the House of Delegates, a member of Congress and a senator looking forward to his first major committee chairmanship, Mr. Sarbanes at 61 evidently figures Marylanders know him by now.
The state's two Republican congresswomen, Constance Morella and Helen Bentley, might well have defeated the senator in this Republican tide year. But they chose not to take him on.
So, for the fourth U.S. Senate race in a row, the Maryland GOP has fielded a candidate whose credentials as a Marylander can be challenged. Linda Chavez and Alan Keyes, both Reagan administration retreads barely this side of the D.C. Beltway, were pushovers for the state's permanent Democratic Establishment. Bill Brock, also a Reagan alumnus, has been ensconced in a waterfront estate in Annapolis for only a few years -- the basis of his claim to be a "Marylander by choice."
He is, however, much more than the third part of a Chavez-Keyes-Brock progression. A former congressman and senator from Tennessee, chairman of the Republican Party when it was rising from the ashes of Watergate, an outstanding trade representative and secretary of Labor we once described as "the conscience of the Reagan Cabinet," Mr. Brock would be a worthy replacement for Senator Sarbanes.
At 63, he has experienced enough to focus on some of the root troubles of American society. He worries about the deterioration of inner-city schools, about a loss of personal and family values, about a disorder and disarray in everyday living that borders on the dangerous, about an anger in the populace that smothers issues.
Though he started his career as a Southern conservative who even voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Mr. Brock's course over the years has pointed steadily toward the center. Unlike the rabid exclusionists who took over the 1992 Republican National Convention, he is very much a moderate Republican -- one who favors abortion rights, measured gun control, free trade and government efforts to lift the underclass out of poverty.
With the exception of trade, where Mr. Sarbanes ranks as a pro-labor protectionist and Mr. Brock an outspoken free-trader, the two candidates for Senate have few clear-cut differences. Yes, they may argue about taxes and spending and such passing fads as term limits, but Bill Brock is no Ellen Sauerbrey. He is not part of the ideological, anti-government wing of the GOP.
This is one reason why The Sun endorsed Mr. Brock in the GOP primary, only to see him cut up by an opponent, Ruthann Aron, who taunted him as a carpetbagger, a lobbyist for foreign governments and a career politician. It became a script Mr. Sarbanes could readily use if the need arises.
Right now, however, Senator Sarbanes hardly has to use any script. Ignoring any claim his constituents may have to long and reasoned debate, he is using his considerable campaign money for the 30-second sound bite TV attack ads that have become the staple and the undoing of politics.
And what is Mr. Brock doing? He is heaving his own bricks over the wall in the form of those egregious attack ads. Though the Brock campaign is a million-dollar operation, it has not found the will or the intellectual energy to examine the Sarbanes record, issue by issue, and respond with detailed rebuttal. The political pros rule both camps.
We have our differences with the senator over his efforts to politicize the Federal Reserve Board, his eagerness to expand government spending and his vote against the North American Free Trade Agreement. We continue to regret his lack of leadership in the Senate, his failure to reach the high level of achievement suggested by his Rhodes Scholar resume. Even more, we deplore the fact that he and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski are just about the most liberal twosome on Capitol Hill, scoring 100 with Americans For Democratic Action and zero with American Conservative Union ratings year after year. This effectively disenfranchises moderate and conservative Marylanders and adds to the state's anti-business reputation.
Yet with Mr. Sarbanes slated to be chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, he will have the clout to increase his influence on behalf of Maryland projects, particularly those affecting federal aid to Baltimore.
Mr. Sarbanes is a principled public servant, a highly educated student of government, an indefatigable worker content to labor in legislative back rooms rather than in the Senate TV gallery. Colleagues respect him for his knowledge of the laws. But he needs a challenge. Mr. Brock has not made a convincing case why he is better qualified or more highly motivated to be a senator from Maryland. This being the case, Mr. Sarbanes has our endorsement for re-election.