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GOP starts on new path Bennett is named to head state party; Steele takes 2nd spot; Grass-roots action stressed; Leaders rehash election losses, vow a brighter future


The state's Republican stars gave their most loyal followers a dose of bitter medicine -- a brutal appraisal of the party's November election losses -- chased with sweet promises of future success yesterday at the GOP winter convention in Annapolis.

It was a show of unity and optimism in the wake of defeat, as Richard D. Bennett, who ran for lieutenant governor on Ellen R. Sauerbrey's losing gubernatorial ticket, easily won the state party chairman's job.

Bennett, a former U.S. attorney for Maryland with a reputation as a formidable fund-raiser, ran unopposed and won on a unanimous voice vote. He replaces Joyce Lyons Terhes, who had been chairwoman for nine years and retired three days after the election.

Michael Steele of Prince George's County, who lost a bid for the GOP comptroller's nomination in September, won the first vice chairman's slot just as handily.

Party activists said the choices reflect the GOP's top priorities as it rebuilds -- fund-raising, grass-roots organizing, attracting minority voters and following a political agenda that Bennett described as "conservatism with compassion."

"We've taken a few steps back, that's all," Bennett told about 220 Republican activists at the Wyndham Gardens Hotel. "Our party is going to be moving forward."

Joining him at the podium were a half-dozen other party leaders, including Sauerbrey and U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., all with the same message: Maryland's GOP failed in this fall's election, but the damage isn't beyond repair.

Republicans lost in November because they lacked a clear agenda, couldn't match the Democrats' get-out-the-vote effort and failed to attract minority voters or to counter an advertising campaign by Gov. Parris N. Glendening that portrayed Sauerbrey as hostile to civil rights, the party leaders said.

The governor's contest was thought to be a tight race in the early going, but Glendening ended up winning by 12 percentage points.

In a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by just less than 2-to-1, Republicans lost six seats in the House of Delegates, the county executive's post and council majorities in Howard and Anne Arundel counties, and dozens of local races.

'A poor performance'

"We screwed up. A poor performance," said Ehrlich in an interview after his speech. "But we believe the problem is how the message is communicated. We do not believe the message itself is flawed."

"Republicans are viewed as a party that would rather attack the president than educate our children," Steele told the activists. "We need to change that."

To rebound, Sauerbrey said, the Republicans need to build a grass-roots organization and work much harder to attract black and Asian-American voters, especially professionals and small-business owners.

Targeting minorities

"Inclusion and outreach is going to be a major necessity for the Republican Party," Sauerbrey said. "If we don't do a much better job of convincing minorities that the Republican Party is the party that best represents them, we simply cannot win a statewide race in Maryland. We need to recognize that and roll up our sleeves and get to work."

It will take years of patient work at neighborhood councils, parents' meetings and the like to attract more minorities to the GOP, said Steele, one of about a dozen blacks in the convention hall yesterday. "We're going to have to crawl before we can walk," he said in an interview.

Bennett drew one of the day's few laughs when he said, "One of the nice things about [Republicans] getting 9 percent of the African-American vote statewide is that we can thank everyone individually."

In his keynote address, Ehrlich said the state GOP also needs to learn how to mount a door-to-door election day get-out-the-vote operation like the one Democrats used effectively in Baltimore.

"We talk about grass roots, but we don't do it," he said. "We don't know how to do it. We've never done it."

The party needs "a crisp, concise policy agenda repeated every day by everyone in this room," Ehrlich said. That agenda would focus on traditional GOP issues such as local control over education, tax cuts, tort reform and opposition to race- or gender-based preferences in hiring and education, he said.

'The phoenix will rise'

Ehrlich's talk drew enthusiastic applause.

"You have to know what went wrong in order to correct things," said Susan Cavanaugh of Lutherville, a former Sauerbrey campaign worker. "Out of the ashes, the phoenix will rise."

Fund raising is the key to his and the party's statewide future, Ehrlich said in an interview. The third-term congressman from Baltimore County easily won re-election in a heavily Democratic district and is considering a run against Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes in two years or a campaign for governor in 2002 if he can raise enough money.

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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