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For Maryland's ardent Republicans, excising Clinton is part of the creed Legislators may heed core supporters despite general public opposition


ANNAPOLIS -- People who think the impeachment of President Clinton could never actually happen should listen more closely to Republican Party stalwarts, such as the Marylanders meeting here yesterday, who consider the need to remove the president an article of faith.

"It's red meat for most of these folks," Jim Dornan, a spokesman for Ellen R. Sauerbrey during her failed Maryland gubernatorial bid this year, said during a break at the Maryland GOP Winter Convention.

Some may find it inconceivable that House Republicans, particularly moderates or those from swing districts, would vote this week to impeach President Clinton despite polls that show a strong majority of Americans oppose it.

But conservative activists often drive the results of GOP primary races, just as liberal activists do in the Democratic Party. And officeholders tend to be particularly sensitive to those core groups.

"These are the people who come out to support us in sleet, snow and rain," Dornan said.

While the country at large is voicing deep misgivings about the actions of the House Judiciary Committee, Republican activists at the Maryland party's year-end convention are pretty clear on what they think should happen to the president: Throw the bum out.

"A lady called my store the other day, and she was livid. She said, 'The Republicans are spineless wet noodles if they don't impeach Clinton,' " remarked Roger Tracy, a 55-year-old Calvert County activist who owns an appliance store. "I pretty much agree with her."

Carol MacCubbin, 56, a convention delegate from Harford County, described her distaste for Clinton. "I'm ashamed of our president," said MacCubbin, whose lapels were brimming with buttons bearing the names of Republican politicians. "I have not liked all our presidents, but I have never been ashamed of one before."

As it turned out, this weekend's convention, held at the Annapolis Wyndham Garden Hotel, was not entirely dominated by the party's most conservative figures. Speakers, including Sauerbrey, dwelled on themes of inclusion, and a few attendees quietly groused that newly elected state GOP Chairman Richard D. Bennett, Sauerbrey's running mate, was too moderate to be leading the party.

Still, the conference's 200 delegates and party officials cheered heartily when GOP consultant Glen Bolger, referring to apparent public opposition to impeachment, declared: "As a pollster, my advice would be, don't believe the polls."

"Because of the economy," Bolger said, people "don't want the president to be removed." But, he added, "I don't really care what the impact is on the polls. There's a lot of time between now and the next election."

Democrats are lining up in concert with their core constituencies as well.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore will be joining the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson in Baltimore today to announce a protest against impeachment at the Capitol on Thursday as the House is preparing to conduct the impeachment vote.

Besides Cummings, Democratic Reps. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County and Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland have been dead set against impeachment. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore County officially joined them yesterday.

"Nothing in the articles approved by the Judiciary Committee approaches the historical and constitutional tests for impeachment of a president," Cardin said in a statement issued yesterday after the committee approved four articles of impeachment. "Even if one assumes that the strained interpretation imposed by the committee on the facts of this case is reasonable, the sad efforts of a president to avoid getting caught having a consensual extramarital affair [do] not threaten our system of government."

Cardin announced his decision yesterday, he said, because he has received a barrage of calls and e-mail over the past four days. His office took in nearly 75 calls from constituents yesterday -- an unusually high number for a Saturday -- who, he said, overwhelmingly opposed impeachment. "Everywhere I go, people were asking me how I was going to vote," Cardin said. "I didn't want them to think I was undecided."

In Maryland, three Republicans are set to vote to impeach Clinton this week: Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Frederick, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County and Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore. If impeached by the House, Clinton faces a trial by the Senate, which could vote to convict and remove him.

The lone Republican holdout is Rep. Constance A. Morella, a moderate from Montgomery County who often finds herself on the same side of issues with the White House and opposing most of her GOP colleagues. Although she is widely expected to vote against impeachment, Morella has not publicly announced her position, and that stance has brought her intense attention from far-flung voters seeking to register their opinions.

Pressure has increased, too, on other Republicans who have not announced their positions, a list including about two dozen representatives, mostly moderates, including Michael N. Castle of Delaware, Rick A. Lazio of New York, Charles Bass of New Hampshire and Brian Bilbray of California.

Some, such as Bass and Bilbray, won by narrow margins in districts that have supported Clinton in both presidential elections. Others, like Lazio and Morella, have a strong level of popularity in their home districts but are flirting with the prospect of running statewide races.

Rep. Bob Franks of New Jersey, a Republican who has built a record as a social moderate who is a fiscal conservative, announced recently during the hearings that he would vote for impeachment. Franks won re-election with 53 percent of the vote in a district that gave Bill Clinton a slight majority in 1996.

The rule of thumb for Republicans, particularly in Maryland with its solid majority of Democratic voters, is to run toward the right during primaries, and rush back to the center during the general elections. The rule's mirror image holds true for Democrats. And so, Republican consultant Carol Hirschberg said, things may get tricky in general elections for GOP lawmakers who cast a vote to impeach Clinton.

"My head tells me it's a hard thing to do [politically], but my heart tells me to do it," Hirschberg said. "He's so sleazy that I feel, on a matter of principle, we've got to do it."

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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