Sauerbrey-Glendening race is close, poll shows If election were held today, incumbent could squeak by again; 'Undecideds' could tip scale; CAMPAIGN 1998


Hamstrung by lackluster approval ratings, Gov. Parris N. Glendening would face a tight race for re-election against Republican challenger Ellen R. Sauerbrey if the election were held today, a new poll shows.

Glendening would win 44 percent of the vote to Sauerbrey's 38 percent, with 18 percent undecided, according to the poll of likely voters conducted for The Sun and other news organizations.

The slim margin suggests that the race could well produce something of a replay of the 1994 election, a virtual dead heat in which Glendening defeated Sauerbrey by fewer than 6,000 votes.

"With all the built-in advantages, Glendening is beginning this re-election campaign with only a modest lead over a Republican candidate who has discernible negatives," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, the Bethesda-based firm that took the poll.

However, Glendening has built a comfortable lead over his main Democratic opponent in the September primary, Eileen M. Rehrmann, the Harford County executive whose name remains unknown to nearly half of Maryland's voters, according to the poll.

In the state comptroller's race, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer is a strong favorite, enjoying solid support from Democrats and Republicans and in all regions of the state, the poll found.

Overall, the survey results depict a Maryland electorate with concerns about Glendening's integrity and a less-than-rosy view his performance as governor.

And voters, the poll showed, are disinclined to give the governor credit for whatever progress the state has made during his 3 1/2 years in office.

At the same time, the voters don't have widespread affection for Sauerbrey, with many still bothered by her persistent challenge to the results of the 1994 election.

But it is Glendening's inability to build a bigger lead -- despite holding the power of incumbency in a state enjoying a surging economy -- that most surprised political observers.

"Whatever positive message about Glendening's accomplishments or progress that's being communicated, it seems to have fallen somewhat on deaf ears," Haller said.

If typical voting patterns hold this year, turnout could be low, as voters perceive the state to be in generally good shape. In that case, a general election match between Sauerbrey and Glendening could turn on which candidate is able to get his or her voters to the polls.

The survey, which was conducted July 9-13, showed:

Glendening holds a solid lead over Rehrmann, his leading

Democratic rival. Of 715 Democratic voters surveyed, 54 percent said they support Glendening, while 17 percent are backing Rehrmann. The poll suggests, however, that the race has the potential to become more competitive before the Sept. 15 primary.

Sauerbrey enjoys a commanding 69 percent to 9 percent lead over her Republican rival, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, among 385 likely GOP voters surveyed. The large margin will likely allow her to look past the primary and concentrate on the general election.

Schaefer appears to be a formidable candidate. The former governor's favorable ratings dwarfed Glendening's, and even before he has mounted much of a campaign, 43 percent of the respondents said they would "definitely" vote for him to become comptroller.

The phone poll surveyed 1,204 registered voters, nearly all of whom cast ballots in at least one election in the past four years and who said they are "certainly" or "probably" going to vote in the fall election.

The answers to questions asked of the entire sample have a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percent, meaning there is a 95 percent certainty that the actual results will fall within that range. Answers to questions asked of smaller groups of voters, such as registered Democrats, have a larger margin of error.

In addition to The Sun, the poll was conducted for the Montgomery Gazette, WRC-TV and WTOP Radio in Washington.

It suggests that Glendening has substantial work to do to secure second four-year term.

Only 42 percent of those surveyed gave Glendening "good" or "excellent" marks for his performance as governor, while 54 percent rated it as "poor" or "only fair."

Among those surveyed who liked what Glendening has done was Rosalyn Jordan, 26, a Baltimore Democrat.

"He's done a little bit for cleaning up the bay and he's done more for giving health care for children," Jordan said. "He does good."

But in another response that may unsettle the Glendening campaign, 47 percent of poll respondents agreed with the statement, "Parris Glendening's character and integrity concern me."

"I don't think he's being honest," said Josephine Carmody, 62, a Baltimore Republican who was surveyed for the poll and agreed to be interviewed. "I think he's a politician."

Rehrmann and Sauerbrey are expected to mount assaults on Glendening's character -- highlighting policy flip-flops and what they characterize as ethical missteps.

Glendening dismissed the poll yesterday, saying it was one of many with conflicting results.

Asked to comment on the public's apparent concerns with his integrity, Glendening said: "We don't go into polls, so it's impossible to say."

The governor fared better when voters were asked their general impression of him. In that case, 56 percent said they had a "favorable" overall view, compared with 32 percent "unfavorable."

But while voters tended to agree that the state economy is heading in the right direction, they don't attribute that to Glendening. Only 38 percent said he should get "much of the credit for moving the state forward."

Looking ahead to the general election in November, Glendening has begun painting Sauerbrey as an "extremist" whose conservative views on abortion, gun control and other issues are out of step with Marylanders.

But the poll suggests that such a campaign theme may not secure much traction among Maryland voters, just over half of whom label themselves as "conservative."

Only 35 percent of those surveyed said they agreed with the following statement: "I have serious doubts about Ellen Sauerbrey as governor because she's too conservative for a state like Maryland." Fifty-two percent said they disagreed.

On the flip side, Sauerbrey also appears to have problems to overcome with the Maryland electorate. A full 30 percent had a negative impression of her, compared with 45 percent who had a favorable one.

Such a low ratio of favorable-to-unfavorable impressions is often a trouble sign for a political candidate, analysts said.

"One of the most impossible things in politics is to change somebody who has a negative view and move them into a neutral or positive camp," Haller said.

Nearly half of those polled said they are still bothered by the way she challenged the 1994 election results -- a challenge that culminated in a bitter, unsuccessful court fight in which Sauerbrey charged that massive voter fraud led to Glendening's victory.

Sauerbrey acknowledged yesterday that the 1994 post-election challenge has caused political problems for her and said she may have to take time on the campaign trail to respond to the lingering concerns.

"Obviously, that troubles me," she said of the poll result regarding her effort to undo the vote.

"I recognized that we made mistakes. It may be that the only way I put the issue to rest is to deal with it head-on."

Of the poll's main result, Sauerbrey said, "It's good to be within striking distance when we haven't done any media."

In the Democratic primary battle, the poll showed Glendening with a solid lead of 37 percentage points over Rehrmann, the two-term Harford executive. Terry McGuire, a Prince George's County physician running an anti-abortion, pro-union campaign, was supported by only 1 percent.

But there are signs that Glendening's Democratic support could slip.

Among Democrats in Glendening's home, Prince George's County, a full 34 percent haven't settled on a candidate. And in the Democratic bastion of Baltimore City, Glendening's lead over Rehrmann was only 48 percent to 23 percent.

Haller cautioned that Rehrmann, with grass-roots and financial help from Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry -- both of whom have endorsed her over the incumbent Democrat -- still had time to cut into Glendening's lead before the Sept. 15 Democratic primary.

The poll found that in a head-to-head showdown between

Rehrmann and Sauerbrey, the Republican leads by a margin of 39 percent to 31 percent, with a full 30 percent undecided.

Rehrmann did not respond to requests for comment.

McGuire vowed to keep campaigning.

"The only poll that counts is the poll of Sept. 15," he said. "We'll see what happens."

On the Republican side, though, Sauerbrey's 7-to-1 lead over Ecker appeared insurmountable, barring a major disruption in the campaign.

"I think [the election] is a long way off," Ecker said. "I think it's a poll, and I'm not discouraged one bit."

In the comptroller's race that includes seven Democrats and six Republicans, Schaefer will clearly be the man to beat.

In almost all categories -- Democrats and Republicans, male and female, black and white -- four out of 10 voters surveyed said they would "definitely" vote to send Schaefer back to Annapolis to fill the seat held for nearly 40 years by Louis L. Goldstein, who died July 3.

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Pub Date: 7/22/98

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