GOP retains appeal in 8th


GAITHERSBURG - It's hard to miss Terry Lierman at the county fair. He's standing across from the candy apple cart with a big "Lierman for Congress" banner. He's smiling, waving at the crowd, handing out as many stickers and buttons as he can.

Even though he's a Democrat in heavily Democratic Montgomery County, even though he's a tireless campaigner with money and connections, folks keep walking past him to greet their Republican congresswoman.

"Hi, Connie. Love your Web site," cries firefighter Kathee Henning as she rushes up to hug Rep. Constance A. Morella. Henning describes herself as a "diehard Democrat" but says Morella is "the one Republican I'll vote for."

This is what Terry Lierman is up against. Morella, 69, has easily won election to Congress seven times because she inspires considerable affection.

One reason is that she's a liberal Republican who generally reflects the views of Maryland's 8th District, which covers all but the eastern sliver of this affluent, educated county.

But many of her constituents also appear to feel a personal connection. She comes across to them as fundamentally decent, a professor who taught Shakespeare at the community college, a mother and grandmother who raised her late sister's six children along with three of her own.

Morella's appeal has endured through Republican and Democratic presidential administrations. Even in the 1998 election, when some Maryland Republican officeholders were hurt by voter distaste for the impeachment of President Clinton, her comfortable 60-40 margin held.

Local Democrats have been reluctant to take her on. That has left a long line of Democratic challengers better known in Capitol Hill circles than in Maryland.

The latest is Lierman, 52, a former Senate aide who is a successful lobbyist for health-research and pharmaceutical firms. He also owns three businesses in medical research and investment.

"He's obviously very likable and financially well off," says Keith Haller, a Bethesda-based pollster. "The most difficult challenge for him is to give Montgomery voters a good reason not to vote for Morella. No Democrat has done it. I think all of the astrological stars would have to be aligned just right."

Lierman has done his best to at least line up some human stars.

Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin is his campaign chairman. Maryland's Democratic political establishment has endorsed him. President Clinton appeared at one of Lierman's summer fund-raisers; Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and other Democratic leaders showed up for another.

Having given generously over the years to national Democrats, Lierman is reaping some returns. He raised $517,605, compared with Morella's $692,052, from April 1 through June 30, according to recent fund-raising reports.

But he's also had to spend far more than Morella on campaign staff, focus groups, T-shirts and other advertising in his attempt to close the name-recognition gap.

He isn't Morella's first robust fund-raising rival. Civil rights activist Ralph G. Neas ran a well-financed campaign in 1998. Twelve years earlier, when she was a state delegate making her first bid for Congress, Morella prevailed though she was outspent by businessman Stewart Bainum Jr.

Like Neas two years ago, Lierman is trying to make the case that Morella is not as moderate as she portrays herself. He argues that Montgomery County has grown increasingly frustrated with the GOP-controlled House and faults Morella for failing to speak up to her party's conservative leadership.

Even in voting against Clinton's impeachment, he says, she waited until the last moment.

"It's not about Connie. It's about Congress," he says on the campaign trail. "It's her first vote that counts. Every year, her first vote is to elect the Republican leadership that says 'No' to everything I care about - gun control, prescription drug coverage, money for elementary education."

His message resonates with some Democrats. Kevin Caughlan, a math teacher at DeMatha High School, says he voted for Morella in the past but won't do so again.

"When she signed the Republican contract, I decided she's a died-in-the-wool Republican," he says while picking up Lierman literature at the fair.

But others are like Melanie Sentelle, a Web site designer who appreciated Morella's quick response to her concerns about animal rights. "She seems to have a lot of common sense," Sentelle says.

It's not every Republican who addresses animal rights. Morella is known as the House Republican most likely to vote against her party. She supports gun control and abortion rights. She gets high marks from Democratic-leaning groups like the Sierra Club, National Education Association and National Organization for Women. She showed up for the Million Mom March.

Some of Morella's critics say her independence has cost her political clout and assignments to powerful committees. She counters that her committee work - chairing a technology subcommittee and serving on a civil service subcommittee - reflects what matters to a district that's home to a fast-growing biotech industry and many federal employees.

Morella says she hears the same arguments from each Democratic opponent. "They always use the same old line that 'She's great, but she's a Republican.' The public is smarter," she says.

She calls herself a "centrist," adding, "I think that's where the American people are. They want each issue decided on the merits."

Her district's voter registration has remained relatively constant over the past decade, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans slightly less than 2-1. That could change when Maryland's congressional districts are redrawn in 2002, prompting speculation that this could be Morella's valedictory race.

Maryland Democratic leaders have made little secret of their desire to change the state's 4-4 split in Congress. They may try to improve their chances in Morella's district by adding the more deeply Democratic precincts of Silver Spring and Takoma Park.

Morella says she's not ready to retire yet. "I like what I do," she says as she strolls through the fair greeting retired federal employees, mothers pushing baby carriages and a third-grader who remembers a Morella visit to her school.

"Hey, Connie, how are you?" calls out Steve Hancock, a 45-year-old farmer, when she stops to admire one of his cows. He says he's liked Morella ever since she showed up at a Teamsters meeting years ago when he worked for United Parcel Service.

"She's just very approachable," Hancock says. "I'm a big fan."

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