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Sarbanes could be vulnerable


ONCE AGAIN it appears as if Sen. Paul Sarbanes will not need his running shoes for his re-election run. The same scuffed loafers will do for this politician who has not faced a threatening opponent in years.

Mr. Sarbanes' election to an unprecedented fifth term as a U.S. senator from Maryland seems inevitable but for one possibility that promises the thrill of forcing him to break a sweat in the next campaign. After the March 2000 primary, a well-financed Rep. Constance Morella, a Montgomery County Republican, could be standing next to him at the starting line.

To be sure, many Maryland Republicans would prefer someone else, someone who votes more like a Republican. And some of their favorites do occasionally dance out from behind the curtain of denial to drop a few veils of encouragement to their cheering constituencies. In the end, though, some of the obvious candidates have reason to hurry off stage when it's time to enter the Republican primary.

Rep. Bob Ehrlich would be a forceful, articulate candidate. But will he risk his present office? Mr. Ehrlich's vote for impeachment won't help in a state that provided President Clinton's second-highest victory margin in 1992 and another strong one in 1996.

Another problem is that Mr. Ehrlich once served in the General Assembly, where even voting with Democrats on certain legislation, such as a bill with sexual harassment definitions so elastic as to pose a danger to doing business in Maryland, can be hazardous to a political career.

As was shown in Republican Ellen Sauerbrey's recent run for governor, a Democrat can scamper to victory on attack ads accusing a Republican of voting against such a "civil rights bill," however miscast.

In recent years, Republican Dick Bennett ran strong races for attorney general and lieutenant governor. But he was recently elected Republican Party chairman in Maryland. Abandoning that post now for a third run would rankle party regulars.

Neither GOP Reps. Wayne Gilchrest nor Roscoe Bartlett seems inclined to seek higher office.

It is Ms. Morella who has the incentive to run against Mr. Sarbanes. Challenges loom in her majority-Democratic district, from within her party and without. In the past, it was conservative Republicans who grumbled loudest at her voting affinity with Democrats on everything from social issues to taxes.

Her vote against the impeachment of Mr. Clinton, however, has brought more Republicans together in dismay and potentially in a willingness to vote for someone else in a GOP primary in the district. Also, Democrats may decide it's time to trade in a Republican liberal for a real liberal, such as Montgomery County Del. Mark Shriver, of the Kennedy clan, who can attract the money needed to run.

The escape route for Ms. Morella is higher up. Unless a well-funded Republican materializes from the mist, no one will match her in money or name recognition in the Senate primary.

If she wins the nomination, voters may well ask, so what? Why vote for a liberal Republican over a liberal Democrat? From there, it will be up to Ms. Morella to distinguish herself.

Economic issues are her main chance. Mr. Sarbanes draws national attention for his scoldings of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan for not lowering interest rates even further, for not pumping more money into the economy, the inflation risk be damned.

Mr. Sarbanes' economic policies, rooted in the Depression era, are an anomaly even among Democrats. Surely any Republican can best him on this topic. Ms. Morella already does on some business issues. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave her a 90-percent rating in 1997, compared with 30 percent for Mr. Sarbanes. A Morella vote for the next Republican tax cut would provide a helpful follow through.

Positioned as the candidate attuned to present economic realities, Ms. Morella may broaden her appeal. The business community, from corporate suites to Main Street shops, may want to contribute. And upscale independent women voters who prefer Democrats may find in Ms. Morella a political solidarity that they have begrudged Ms. Sauerbrey and other conservative women.

The effect may even spread to the news media, whose image of most Republicans tends to the cartoon-like -- from men in top hats and striped trousers to gun-toting rustics. Ms. Morella may get a better ride in the press as a supposed successor to liberal GOP Sen. Charles Mathias, so wistfully recalled by those who otherwise view Republicans as reprehensible.

Whether today's Republicans would find much to like in a Senator Morella is a contingency beyond the scope of this musing. What is more certain is that even "safe" Democratic Senate seats need not be conceded.

Besides, the prospect of Mr. Sarbanes having to limber up for a strenuous run, with the Democratic Party expending extra money and campaign appearances by the president, may be a spectacle worth pursuing.

Jay G. Merwin Jr., a former Evening Sun reporter, is a lawyer in Baltimore and a Republican.

Pub Date: 2/11/99

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