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The GOP's questers should think again


THOSE WACKY Republicans are at it again. In their quest for the political Holy Grail of Maryland -- the governorship -- members of the GOP are of two minds, and the gap between them is widening.

On one side stand conservative supporters of Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the almost-governor who lost in 1994 by just 6,000 votes. Not only is she the heir-presumptive, but her followers don't want to hear any dissension in the ranks.

On the other side stand GOP moderates who have honest political disagreements with Ms. Sauerbrey. They conclude from this state's history that a partisan conservative like Ms. Sauerbrey stands little chance of gaining the governorship in 1998. It will, they claim, take a middle-road candidate to attract crucial "swing" Democratic votes.

Sauerbrey backers believe they can end their party's years of wandering in the wilderness. Having come so close in 1994, they feel certain Ms. Sauerbrey is a shoo-in for election next year. They don't want anything to mess that up. So any time a party leader criticizes Ms. Sauerbrey, or a potential challenger starts to surface, her loyalists go ballistic.

When former Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall decided to run for a state Senate vacancy last year, Sauerbrey supporters savagely attacked him as a dirty, no-good moderate who actually associated with Democrats. Their fear was that the popular moderate might quickly set his sights on the governor's race.

When Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary had some not-so-kind words about Ms. Sauerbrey's uncompromising stances during her years in the legislature, her supporters pounced on him with equal savagery.

The message: Don't knock Ellen, and don't even think of challenging her. The mantra: Only a unified, Sauerbrey-led GOP can win in 1998. A divisive primary elects the Democrat.

That was then, this is now

If that last theme sounds familiar, it should. Three years ago, supporters of Rep. Helen D. Bentley were delivering that same unity message in hopes of avoiding a messy GOP primary. Instead, Ms. Sauerbrey entered the race, waging a tough, uncompromising campaign. Her surprise win in the primary gave her the critical momentum for the general election.

But now, the Sauerbrey forces deem competition an evil and destructive force. So when Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker formed a committee to explore a gubernatorial bid, Ms. Sauerbrey's supporters tried to pillory the guy. Her business supporters urged the co-chairs of his committee, Mr. Neall and Ms. Bentley, to drop him and close ranks around Ms. Sauerbrey -- even though they can't stand her politics.

Who would have imagined right-wing conservatives railing against competition? They make it sound almost un-democratic.

Actually, without a competitive and compelling primary for governor, Republicans could be in deep trouble next year. Let's suppose Ms. Sauerbrey has no primary opposition. Throughout the summer campaign, her name disappears from newspapers and TV news programs. Media attention focuses on the Democratic donnybrook between incumbent Parris Glendening and his opponent. It's a riveting news story -- the first formidable attempt to oust an incumbent governor in a primary since 1950.

The dearth of Republican news coverage in those summer months and the heavy focus on the Glendening race could persuade voters that the real election is taking place in the Democratic primary. But if Republicans have a hard-fought primary that draws media attention that summer, the GOP would share the spotlight. Two contested primaries would set the scene in the media for a dramatic general-election showdown.

Perhaps another upset is in the making in the Republican contest, with Mr. Ecker emerging as an appealing middle-road alternative for disgruntled Democrats in November. Or perhaps Ms. Sauerbrey will crush Mr. Ecker and give voters a clear ideological choice in November, not an echo.

Either way, the GOP benefits. Only by stifling dissent and crushing the natural competitive urge of politicians would the party suffer.

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

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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