THE RACE FOR governor of Maryland has already started -- a full 17 months before the primaries.

While incumbent Parris N. Glendening has kept a low campaign profile since the first of the year -- after a summer and fall filled with controversy over his fund-raising tactics -- his potential opponents have grown increasingly active.

On the Republican side, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the 1994 nominee, has hired a small staff and nationally respected advisers. She is a full-time undeclared candidate with a distinct advantage this go-around: Time to broaden her conservative base just enough to win over some moderate votes.

The moderate threat

But she can't ignore her GOP primary -- that was Rep. Helen Bentley's mistake in 1994. Two-term Howard County Executive Chuck Ecker is also on the rubber-chicken circuit. He's raising money and trying to appeal to Republicans worried that Ms. Sauerbrey's brand of conservatism is too right-wing to win a general election -- even against a weak incumbent like Mr. Glendening.

Sauerbrey loyalists think their candidate has the nomination locked up. But a big turnout of GOP moderates could mean an Ecker surprise.

On the Democratic side, potential challengers are lining up to take on the incumbent governor, who is perceived as vulnerable.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor has a campaign office and consultants, and a pot full of cash from a big fund-raiser last year. He is hurt, though, by his small rural base and a record on abortions and gun-control at odds with majority Democratic sentiment.

Meanwhile, Harford County Executive Eileen Rehrmann holds a fund-raiser May 15 at which she probably will announce for governor. She is a successful two-term executive with a deserved reputation as a tough fiscal conservative but with a record of support in Harford and in the state legislature for social programs and education. That, plus her gender, could prove an appealing combination.

Also in contention is Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who denies wanting to run for governor even as he seems ready to jump into the race if the other challengers fail to catch fire by this time next year. He's playing a waiting game.

These Democrats might have to reevaluate their options, though, if Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin decides to run. He is the overwhelming choice of Democratic activists unhappy with Governor Glendening's performance and would likely preempt the field of challengers.

Cardin's trump card

Ever so slowly, Mr. Cardin has methodically examined the pros and cons of a run for governor. He is super-cautious and gun-shy after an abortive run in 1985.

But it is a job he has always wanted. He gets superlative marks for his 20-year performance in the House of Delegates, especially his eight years as a consensus-building Speaker of the House. He has increasingly moderated his voting record in Congress, gained high visibility from his work on the Gingrich ethics case, and is one of the few Democrats trying to build bridges to Republicans on budget and tax issues. His multi-county suburban-city district gives him an unusually broad base of voter support.

In recent months, he's received encouragement from the likes of Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan, Prince George's County Executive Wayne Curry and key Baltimore mayoral adviser Larry S. Gibson. He has been urged to make a decision before the Rehrmann fund-raiser, but don't count on it. A fall announcement is more likely.

How would the congressman fare against the incumbent in a primary? Mr. Glendening isn't widely popular. (A recent poll conducted by a Baltimore-area state senator showed the governor with a 2-1 unfavorable rating.) State legislators aren't fond of him and worry about a Republican tidal wave in 1998. And major cracks have developed in the Big Three subdivisions which gave Mr. Glendening victory in 1994 -- Montgomery County, Prince George's County and Baltimore City.

Still, unseating an incumbent is difficult. Mr. Glendening's ability to barter items in next year's budget for election loyalty is considerable.

Yet so many top-level Democrats are clamoring for Mr. Cardin to run that he may take a calculated risk -- he is, after all, a skilled poker player.

That would set the stage for two slam-bang gubernatorial primaries in Maryland, and a lengthy campaign that could re-write this state's political history books.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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