Facing a choice last Tuesday about the sort of government they want, Marylanders appeared to be of two minds, but the split may be less sharp than it seems.
Approximately 1.4 million votes were distributed neatly in the race for governor between a doctrinaire Republican who promised lower taxes and a Democrat still willing to vouch for government spending as a force for good.
Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening, the Democrat, held a 6,191-vote margin over the Republican, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, when the polls closed on Tuesday.
Some 45,000 absentee ballots remained to be counted. By week's end, Mrs. Sauerbrey had narrowed the gap, but Mr. Glendening's strongest precincts remained to be counted.
One of the two will wobble out of this state of suspended animation to take his or her place on the pockmarked political landscape of 1994: as one of the Democratic Party's few 1994 victors or as one of the GOP's many triumphs.
Mere victory will not settle the fundamental questions. What sort of government should the winner offer? Clearly, half the people who voted wanted something along the lines traced by Mrs. Sauerbrey: lower taxes, less government, cuts in welfare, a new direction. And half wanted Mr. Glendening, who promised more of the same, done more efficiently.
The winner will have no mandate, although in terms of moving the state from its pre-election point of reference, Mrs. Sauerbrey could make the stronger case. If either wants a second term, she/he will remember that half the voters wanted someone else.
The 50-50 outcome leaves the state less divided than it may seem.
The voters may have detected more similarities between these candidates for governor than the candidates themselves could acknowledge. Mrs. Sauerbrey's sharply conservative positions made Mr. Glendening's "mainstream moderation" seem liberal.
Mr. Glendening's promise to perfect -- and protect -- social programs made him a different commodity, to be sure. In other important matters, big differences were difficult to detect.
He would push hard for a grow-the-economy-and-jobs approach to economic development, acknowledging some of the obstacles to growth in the current climate. And so would Mrs. Sauerbrey.
He modeled his campaign strategy around the success of Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, who won the 1992 presidential primary over a Bill Clinton who was then, like Mrs. Sauerbrey now, proposing a middle-class tax break. Mr. Tsongas called his opponent's offer political candy then, and Mr. Glendening responded similarly two years later.
Both candidates aimed to build a base of suburban support in this election, to capture what Maryland political thinkers now call the Tsongas belt. Some have said the election was a clash between the Baltimore region and the Maryland suburbs of Washington, but the battle of the 'burbs was as inconclusive as the race as a whole.
Without the Baltimore's preponderant Democratic majority, Mr. Glendening would have had no shot at becoming governor-elect, Still, a deeper expression of support -- a better turnout -- would have given him the election outright and left him far more indebted to Baltimore than he may now feel in a strictly political sense.
Mrs. Sauerbrey fared poorly in urban precincts, polling only about a third of Mr. Glendening's total. He had urged inclusion and diversity. She trumpeted less government, and state government money is a city lifeline.
Mr. Glendening's decision to endorse government is not as out of step with the state as Mrs. Sauerbrey suggested.
Marylanders have given at least theoretical willingness to spend even more money on education and welfare, as measured by polls taken by The Sun, if the programs are well run. In response to his opponent's tangible offer of tax cuts, Mr. Glendening relied on the arguably tepid promise of efficiency and made it stick, however shakily. Again, half the electorate wanted a radical departure, even if that meant some disruption and pain.
Pluck and courage
Beyond Mrs. Sauerbrey's galvanizing tax cut issue, her success owed much to pluck and courage. While other GOP candidates dithered or fuzzed their political identities, she entered the race declaratively and proudly. Hardly anyone knew her outside the GOP and Annapolis, where she was regarded by some as a zealot, a true believer who would rather be right than electable outside her home legislative district.
But then came the metamorphosis: As if freed from the constraints of a tyrannical legislative majority, she became a different person, a prophet with honor in a Democratic state. When she put her hand on the budget and said confidently during one of her TV commercials, "You and I know there's fat in government," she bonded with skeptical voters everywhere.
Along with the anti-government wave of 1994, her sharp image neutralized overwhelming advantages held by her opponent: the big money, a 2-to-1 voter registration edge for Democrats, major newspaper endorsements, overwhelming support among African-American Marylanders, the help of organized labor and a multitude of interest groups from abortion rights to gun controllers.
She had the Christian Coalition, the gun lobby and, most importantly, The-Thing-That-Ate-The-Democrats. She had her own corps of volunteers, and her campaign seemed to gain professionalism as it continued toward Election Day.
A sea of what-ifs
In a race as close as this one, virtually any act, done or not done, can be called the difference between winning and losing. What would have happened, for example, if Rep. Constance A. Morella had chosen to run against Paul Sarbanes for the U.S. Senate? Would the GOP ticket have been strong enough, particularly in Mrs. Morella's home county of Montgomery, to push Mrs. Sauerbrey to victory? Suppose she had been willing to make a deal with Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, whom she defeated in the GOP primary? What if she had made more aggressive effort to woo Democrats?
And why didn't she hit harder at the Democratic regime so thoroughly symbolized by the current governor? She had called Mrs. Bentley "a different shade of Schaefer," but the assault seemed to die away in the general election.
Charges of Democratic mismanagement were a subtext of her campaign, but would a more concentrated barrage might have been more effective?
If her tax cut proposal had not been under such heavy attack from Mr. Glendening, she might have had more time. But she was obliged to defend against his suggestion that it was a gimmick that didn't compute.
Blurry and indirect
Mr. Glendening's own campaign was remarkable, too. How did he survive when so many other Democrats were losing across the country? A Glendening victory would be even more remarkable: To quote one Maryland political observer, the Glendening campaign had everything but a candidate. He seemed blurry and indirect, particularly in comparison to Mrs. Sauerbrey. He was effective in small groups, but spark-free on TV.
At the polls this year, Marylanders engaged in a referendum on the past, on the future and on themselves. The results were mixed, but perhaps not as thoroughly as they seemed at first.
A political system thought of as fair to all might have a more direct way of acknowledging and responding to the desires of those whose candidate was all-but-elected.
C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.