Connie Morella in for a big fight


CONNIE Morella's brand of liberal Republicanism has been out of vogue for years.

But she's a fabulous people person, the kind who makes you feel good about elected officials.

That's a prime reason she's won eight terms in Congress.

It helps that she lives in the state's most liberal county. Montgomery -- though a Democratic stronghold -- has a tradition of sending GOP moderates like Connie Morella to Congress.

But times are changing. Ms. Morella won by only 17,000 votes last year, her slimmest margin, against a weak foe.

Even worse, Democrats in power are gunning for her seat.

When the redistricting maps are drawn, Ms. Morella's district will shrink. She'll lose solid Republican precincts in northern Montgomery and pick up Democratic precincts in Takoma Park and Silver Spring.

To complete her misery, the leading Democrat is Del. Mark K. Shriver, who comes from a star-studded family -- father R. Sargent Shriver started the Peace Corps; mother Eunice Kennedy Shriver's brother was John F. Kennedy; sister Maria Shriver is a TV news celebrity married to film superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger; cousin Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is lieutenant governor.

Mark Shriver already has declared. He's got a reservoir of financial support; achievements on children's and family issues in Annapolis; and a cadre of campaign workers. He's an affable, telegenic, former Baltimore social worker.

But first he's got to win the Democratic primary. State Sen. Christopher Van Hollen of Kensington jumped in the race last week. He's got solid legislative credentials, too, especially on budget issues. He's becoming an influential Annapolis player.

Still, Mr. Shriver is the early favorite.

Either of them stands a good shot against Ms. Morella.

She's not a pushover, though. Everyone calls her Connie. She's articulate, endearing and knows politics and government.

But Maryland Senate President Mike Miller, the key player in redistricting, is determined to help his party in Congress. In his eyes, Ms. Morella stands in the way of a Democratic House majority.

Sure, she's likable, sincere and boasts a liberal record. But that describes Mr. Shriver and Mr. Van Hollen, too.

They're both youthful -- ages 37 and 42, respectively -- but with as much legislative experience as Ms. Morella had when first elected to Congress. It could be a rugged battle for the 70-year-old incumbent. That's why she's mulling another option: a run for governor.

Even in Democratic Maryland, a conservative Republican almost became governor in 1994. Think what a liberal Republican might achieve if things break right.

What if the economy sags, creating a big state budget deficit; discontent with the Glendening-Townsend administration grows; and the public demands spending cuts?

And what if the Democratic nominee is Ms. Townsend, who could have trouble defending her big-spending ways in office? She might be vulnerable to criticism from a fellow female candidate.

Ms. Morella's big advantage would be her popularity in heavy-voting Montgomery County. Ironically, the same Democrats intent on removing her from Congress would embrace her as governor.

Montgomery residents have an inferiority complex. They're convinced they're never treated fairly in Annapolis. Electing one of their own -- someone they trust -- as governor would be a gigantic coup.

And don't forget Rascovar's Law: Any pol known far and wide by her first name is hard to beat.

Ms. Morella doesn't want to give up her congressional seat now that she's gained some seniority. But she's at an age where she'll never get a better shot at governor.

With her charm and political know-how, she could be an appealing alternative to four more years of the same-old Democratic gang.

Her style, strong background in finances and moderate record should play well in the Baltimore area. She'd attract cross-over Democratic and independent voters.

Add on her strength in the Washington suburbs and the usual GOP strongholds in rural Maryland and Ms. Morella could surprise.

Her biggest obstacle might come from within. Conservatives in the GOP detest Ms. Morella. She doesn't toe the party line, hasn't helped build the state party.

Even though she could offer the party its best chance to end Democratic hegemony in Annapolis, GOP purists won't hear of it: Better a Kennedy named Townsend as governor than a pseudo-Republican named Morella.

They'll go all-out to defeat her in the GOP primary, or sit out the general election. So Ms. Morella faces a perilous 2002.

She could try to hang on to her congressional seat in a decidedly Democratic district.

Or she could try to resurrect moderate Republicanism -- in the face of conservative opposition -- as a force in statewide elections.

Either way, she's in for the toughest fight of her career.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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