Debate maxims not debatable Rules: In political circles, well-established conventions help candidates decide when to debate, and when not to.; CAMPAIGN 1998


INCUMBENTS and front-runners follow one inviolable rule: Never debate.

Why? Because almost anything can happen, none of it good.

First of all, you could get trounced. You could win, of course, but you're the leader so you're supposed to win. Worst of all, you give your opponent a chance to hurt you, a platform and maybe even a headline.

On the other hand, if you're leading by prohibitive lengths, you can afford to think about another political maxim: Keep 'em off balance.

So when Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker announced his campaign for the Maryland Republican gubernatorial nomination last fall, front-runner Ellen R. Sauerbrey immediately challenged him to a series of debates.

Ecker, unaccountably, deferred. Later, he said, we'll debate later.

Later having arrived, the two contenders will face off for the first time at 7 p.m. May 20 before a Montgomery County Republican club at the Naval Officers Club in Bethesda. The debate format is yet to be decided. Blair Lee IV, a local columnist, is to moderate.

Denis to announce bid for County Council seat

Tonight, at the Montgomery GOP's annual Lincoln Day Dinner, former four-time state Sen. Howard A. Denis will announce his campaign for an at-large seat on the Montgomery County Council. A widely respected legislator, Denis is regarded as the ideal Montgomery candidate: smart, focused, experienced and personable.

He'll need all these attributes. Four of the nine council members are elected countywide -- and no Republican has won such a race since the 1960s. Now working on Capitol Hill as a staff attorney to the House District of Columbia Subcommittee, Denis might be the one to break through.

He's been out of office since 1994, when he ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor with former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley. But no one will be surprised to see him back.

"I'd like to make a contribution," says the 59-year-old Denis. "I think I have a unique perspective, having been a state senator and knowing how difficult it is for Montgomery to get its fair share every year in Annapolis. That and my experience with the Congress really has opened my eyes to the entities that play such a significant role in the county -- transportation, economic development, quality of life."

From the practical angle, Denis' candidacy appears to have much of what is needed in the Montgomery County of the 1990s. Still heavily Democratic in voter registration, it has an increasing Republican presence, particularly in the northwestern reaches.

Denis says he sees the race as a challenging one. With a large number of contenders from both parties seeking the four at-large seats, Denis could have an advantage because of his name recognition.

In Annapolis, Denis was known for his ability to synthesize complicated issues and talk about them in understandable terms. Reporters were particularly indebted to him because the discussions were usually quotable.

He also made converts with his impassioned defense of religious freedom and his opposition to prayer in the schools.

Some see the at-large, countywide race as perfect preparation for a race for the congressional seat held by Republican Constance A. Morella, the thought-to-be unbeatable 8th District incumbent. Denis says he expects and hopes that Morella will continue to serve Montgomery for many years. "Her record and plans are essential for the county, the state and the country," he says.

Eckel seeks development strategy with 'backbone'

The early leader in the 1998 election year contest for best campaign slogan is Grason Eckel, a Democratic candidate for the state Senate from Cambridge.

"The Mid-Shore," says his campaign literature, "needs less wishbone and more backbone in the state Senate."

A lawyer and former bill drafter in Annapolis, Eckel offers this translation: Instead of hoping and wishing for economic development help, voters in his district want stronger leadership.

"We have severe economic problems," he says. "We need to create some new strategies."

Pub Date: 5/05/98

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