Once again, Sarbanes proves pundits wrong


EVERY SIX years, Paul Sarbanes is written off as vulnerable. And every six years, the Maryland senator starts campaigning, raises his visibility, gets energized and coasts to re-election.

Now Mr. Sarbanes, 66, is doing it again. A year ago, some pundits viewed him as an easy target for Republican Rep. Bob Ehrlich. Yet by the time he announced this past week his intentions to run for a fifth term in the U.S. Senate, Mr. Sarbanes was looking so secure that no prominent Republican seemed eager to take him on in two years.

The quiet pol

If ever there was an unassuming politician, it is Mr. Sarbanes. He can enter a room and few people, if any, notice. That's fine with him. He doesn't like the spotlight. He's not a publicity hound. He seems uncomfortable if his name gets in the newspapers too often.

That's one reason he's known as "the stealth senator." Other than his re-election campaigns every six years, Mr. Sarbanes largely disappears from view, quietly concentrating on being a U.S. senator. He is a cerebral lawmaker, always in his seat for long hearings and floor sessions. He is a thoughtful legislator who cares more about ideas than politics.

In many respects, his approach is similar to the only other Marylander who served four Senate terms, Millard E. Tydings, another ideas man. While their politics were quite different -- Mr. Tydings was an unyielding conservative -- their aversion to playing the publicity game or getting embroiled in local political wranglings makes them senatorial kin.

In early 1998, Mr. Sarbanes had all the markings of a politician in trouble. He'd had prostate cancer three years earlier. Aides reported he looked tired. His unremitting liberalism appeared out of step with a Maryland electorate that was turning more Republican and conservative.

State Republicans saw the political tide finally turning. They came within 6,000 votes of winning the governorship in 1994, and early 1998 polls showed conservative Ellen Sauerbrey in a strong position to beat Gov. Parris Glendening in November. That was supposed to be a stepping stone for sending Mr. Sarbanes into retirement in 2000.

Political winds

But funny things happened last year. Democrats and independent voters got furious at Republicans over their fanatical drive to impeach President Clinton. Mr. Glendening became the beneficiary of this pro-Clinton sentiment. And Mr. Sarbanes got motivated.

When Mr. Sarbanes realized Ms. Sauerbrey could win the governorship, he and fellow Democratic senator Barbara Mikulski jumped into the Glendening campaign in a major way. The threat of a conservative takeover of state government was enough to get Mr. Sarbanes' political juices flowing.

Also, the increasingly public statements from Mr. Ehrlich that he intended to challenge the senator in 2000 turned Mr. Sarbanes into a man with a mission.

He doesn't like Mr. Ehrlich's conservative politics, or his tendency to demagogue on issues, or his eagerness to impeach the president. Mr. Ehrlich is an intense, vocal and telegenic politician of the right. Mr. Sarbanes is his mirror image. Both may be Princeton men from working-class families, but the similarities end there.

Since last summer, Mr. Sarbanes has been in a campaign mode. He is exceptionally good at connecting with voters. He comes across as the common man's politician -- humble, warm and caring.

Dedicated lawmaker

That's why voters have sent him to Washington -- first the House, then the Senate -- since 1970. They may not agree with the extent of his liberalism, but they know he is dedicated, scrupulously honest and deeply concerned about the well-being of folks back home and the nation.

Combine that with the shellacking state Republicans received last November and the likelihood that 2000 will be a landslide Democratic year in Maryland, and it's no surprise Mr. Ehrlich is looking for an exit strategy.

When next year's Senate campaign begins, Mr. Sarbanes will be awash in funds and rock-solid Democratic support. He will be campaigning hard for the national Democratic ticket, led almost certainly by Vice President Al Gore. He will be hammering away at the Republicans' shrill drive to disgrace the Clinton administration.

At this stage, Mr. Sarbanes looks like a shoo-in to become the first Marylander elected to serve five terms in the U.S. Senate. His timing is impeccable. Once again, he is preparing to teach state Republicans a tough lesson in retail politics.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 2/07/99

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