Leopold faces 'the cold fish eyes of reality'


THE END of Del. John R. Leopold's run for the U.S. Senate may come before it starts.

Mr. Leopold is probably right that he cannot compete on the money trail to win statewide election, but it would have been interesting to see him try to play the underdog to the respected incumbent, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

A source close to the moderate Pasadena Republican says Mr. Leopold is almost certain not to challenge the four-term Mr. Sarbanes, which would clear the path for Paul Rappaport to seek the Republican nomination.

Leopold It was just a month ago that Mr. Leopold sounded enthusiastic about the possibility of campaigning against Mr. Sarbanes when it was clear that U.S. Reps. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Constance A. Morella would not risk their safe seats to run.

The state delegate was convinced that the senator's long tenure in office and his perceived aloofness made him vulnerable.

Over breakfast, the delegate said he would challenge the incumbent on his legislative performance and his constituent service.

He questioned whether Mr. Sarbanes has done much of either in recent years, and contrasted that record with his own: a Republican who has been able to pass bills in a Democratic-controlled state legislature, he says. Last week, however, the Philadelphia native and one-time Hawaiian state legislator sounded less like a candidate for higher office.

Mr. Leopold said he hasn't shut the door on the campaign, but acknowledged that he had to face "the cold fish eyes of reality."

His main drawback, he said, is his inability to raise the buckets of money required for a statewide campaign. He would need at least $500,000, he estimated, and that would fund only a bargain-basement campaign. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski raised $2.9 million for her 1998 campaign; Mr. Sarbanes raised $2.7 million in 1994.

Mr. Sarbanes' opponent, Bill Brock, captured only 41 percent of the vote five years ago although his campaign spent $3.2 million.

Mr. Leopold introduced Maryland to "sign-waving" politicking, in which candidates stand on busy intersections during the heat of the campaign with posters, smiles and friendly waves. But the fish eyes of reality tell him that sign-waving without big dollars cannot defeat an opponent widely viewed as invincible and institutional.

After meeting Mr. Leopold, I had started to look forward to his candidacy. Perhaps it's a Philly bias -- it's hard to root against a guy who still cheers the lowly Philadelphia Eagles in these dark years. And he would have been more of a long shot than Rocky in the first movie.

The delegate would have been attempting a huge leap from the lower house of the Maryland legislature to the upper chamber of Congress. But he has proven to be an effective legislator since his first election here in 1982. For next year, he has already drafted two county bills worthy of consideration. One would discount the cost of marriage license for couples who undergo counseling. The other would lift a restriction on the number of liquor licenses for chain restaurants.

His supporters describe him as a dedicated public servant with a track record of attracting Democratic voters and working with Democratic legislators. He won election in a district in which his party was outnumbered 3-1 in voter registration.

Republican state Sen. Martin Madden of Howard County, who credits Mr. Leopold for being a leader in the fight for charter schools in Maryland, believes his General Assembly colleague could mount a legitimate challenge to Mr. Sarbanes.

"I don't think this is a Don Quixote quest," Mr. Madden said. "A lot of things would have to fall into place, but it could happen."

But there would be detractors. A former opponent, Democratic Sen. Philip Jimeno, once labeled Mr. Leopold an opportunist who was willing to do whatever it took to win public office. Mr. Jimeno made that remark when Mr. Leopold took out a contract on a home outside his district, presumably to run for the state Senate against a fellow Republican.

There is no doubt that Mr. Leopold is ambitious, though he has served in the House of Delegates for all but four years since 1982. Ambition, however, is hardly a flaw for a politician.

Mr. Leopold also would have brought political pragmatism rather than extreme ideology. Mr. Rappaport, a former police chief in Howard County who ran unsuccessfully for Maryland attorney general last year, was the running mate to uncompromising gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey in 1994. He is expected to officially enter the race soon.

Mr. Leopold said earlier: "I would put a different face on the Republican party. We cannot afford someone who wants to go in (to the race) and make ideological statements."

And yet, with Mr. Leopold looking less likely to oppose Mr. Sarbanes, that may be the result.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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