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The inevitability of Sauerbrey


WHILE MARYLAND Democrats have their own club of high-level dissidents -- called Anybody But Glendening (ABG) -- so do their Republican counterparts -- Anybody But Sauerbrey (ABS).

Neither group, though, has found the key ingredient -- a candidate.

For state Republicans, this is a time of mixed emotions. Maryland's Democratic governor continues to stumble and fumble. He's unpopular and viewed as highly vulnerable. Yet Republicans might squander this opportunity by putting up a candidate who makes the Democratic incumbent look good.

That's the fear of some GOP leaders. They are worried Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the party's 1994 candidate, isn't electable any more -- even rematched against an unpopular Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Mrs. Sauerbrey, they fear, is just too conservative. And her long crusade to prove voter fraud in 1994 soured many sympathizers. Americans hate a sore loser.

Besides, they believe Democrats will end their differences before the general election. All the dissension will disappear as Democrats rally around the incumbent to defeat a far bigger threat.

It's not unlike what is happening this year. National Democrats have put aside their considerable policy disagreements to back Bill Clinton's re-election. Why? For fear of what would happen under a Republican Dole presidency and a Gingrich-dominated Congress.

A Sauerbrey governorship would mean a sea change in state government. The litmus test to hold an office would be not only a Republican registration card but a conservative philosophy. Tough budget cuts shrinking the size of agencies would mean major reductions of social programs.

That's more than enough to draw Democrats to Parris Glendening. Ellen Sauerbrey is his most potent weapon. He can effectively use her presence as a way to dissuade primary challengers. For Democrats, she is a clear and present danger.

That's the way she strikes some Republicans, too. The party hierarchy could fall into the hands of the party's right wing, folks who demand ideological purity. They abhor compromising on issues, especially with the enemy -- the Democrats. That could be too much for middle-road Marylanders. Republican inroads of the past decade could be wiped out in just a few elections.

Republican dissenters are seeking a pragmatic alternative. Sen. John A. Cade of Anne Arundel County has been mentioned. So has ex-U.S. Attorney Richard D. Bennett, who ran a good race in 1994 for attorney general. And Congressman Robert L. Ehrlich. But the most frequently mentioned name is Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

Grandfatherly demeanor

Only Mr. Ecker is looking seriously at challenging Mrs. Sauerbrey. The popular two-term county executive has a proven record of fiscal conservatism, but with a social conscience. He's a friendly, down-home type, with a grandfatherly demeanor. He's a mainstreamer on such matters as gun control and abortion rights. His brand of Republican moderation should appeal to Democrats.

That's critical in a state with a 2-1 Democratic voter majority. But it is also why ardent conservatives don't want any part of him. They see him as a "sunshine patriot" -- a former Democrat who switched parties for political convenience. He's not a "real" conservative; he's an accommodationist. Besides, he doesn't have the name recognition or business backing of an Ellen Sauerbrey.

The odds on Mr. Ecker or any Republican taking on Mrs. Sauerbrey are longer than a Democrat challenging Mr. Glendening. She is so well known among Republicans and her core base of support among activists is so solid. And she came so close the last time.

Her backers believe Marylanders are ready -- even eager -- to embrace Mrs. Sauerbrey. We could learn much from this November's balloting for president. How state voters react to Bob Dole's call for a 15 percent tax cut could reflect their outlook toward Mrs. Sauerbrey's similar pitch.

The two 1994 general-election candidates remain the heavy favorites for 1998. It's so difficult to beat a party's 800-pound gorilla.

Of course, upsets can happen. Ask Ellen Sauerbrey: She gained the GOP nomination last time by shocking the heavy primary favorite, Helen Bentley.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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