ALWAYS KEEP them guessing. That's what William Donald Schaefer is doing these days. Every time he spouts off about his political plans, he creates a flurry of interest and intrigue.
Will the two-time governor, four-time mayor and current state comptroller run for a second full term? Will he retire? Or will he try to reclaim the governorship?
His statements are closely monitored by politicians for an indication of which way Mr. Schaefer intends to proceed.
He's enjoying others' discomfiture. He raised nearly a quarter-million dollars the other night without breaking a sweat. Think what he could do if he got serious about a race for governor.
And yet William Donald Schaefer, a legend in his time, is 79 years old. He's got one bad knee. He lacks the day-and-night drive he had as mayor of Baltimore, when he created a renaissance that won national acclaim.
He's also clearly frustrated. And yet being state comptroller beats retirement by a long shot.
He's done some good things.
Still, his inability to run state government drives him nuts. Parris N. Glendening doesn't do the job the way Mr. Schaefer thinks it should be done. The current governor ignores his predecessor and has tried to isolate him.
The result is a constant barrage of harsh, angry criticisms of Mr. Glendening by the comptroller. He goes out of his way to embarrass Mr. Glendening at Board of Public Works meetings.
On Monday, the comptroller visited Carroll County and lashed out at Mr. Glendening's Smart Growth policies - even though Carroll has been grievously remiss about protecting open spaces, developing sensible land-use policies and protecting the region's precious water supply.
But does this mean Mr. Schaefer is about to run for governor?
He likes the leading contender, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, though he has doubts about her capacity to run a complex government of 80,000 employees and a $21 billion budget.
He views Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan and Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, both of whom are looking at the governor's race, as quality managers fully capable of assuming the responsibilities of governor.
And he grudgingly respects some of the difficult revival efforts of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley - the wild card in the 2002 gubernatorial campaign.
There's no burning reason for Mr. Schaefer to oppose them. Back in 1986, there was such a rationale: Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, the leading candidate for governor, was viewed by then-Mayor Schaefer as anti-Baltimore. He jumped into the race largely to prevent Mr. Sachs from winning.
There's another reason Mr. Schaefer might try to stay in his current job. Any of the likely candidates for governor will get along better with the comptroller than does Mr. Glendening. The next governor would be wise to take advantage of Mr. Schaefer's management and motivational skills on key administration projects.
Mr. Glendening foolishly failed to build bridges to the comptroller and bring him in as part of the team. That was a mistake the next governor isn't likely to repeat.
Another term as comptroller puts Mr. Schaefer in an interesting position for the 2004 elections, too. Should Mayor O'Malley run and win the governorship next year, or run for the U.S. Senate in 2004, the mayoral contest could be a wide-open affair.
It's almost a certainty that both Council President Sheila Dixon and city Comptroller Joan Pratt will file. Other politicians from the African-American community are likely to jump in, too.
In such a crowded field, the name Schaefer might stand out as the only one with the proven record of "do it now" achievements, an ability to whip government into shape and bring Mr. O'Malley's programs to fruition.
Baltimore voters, black and white, showed last time that they want a mayor who's a doer, not a talker; that skin color is not the most important issue to them; that they badly want this city to become livable and pleasant once again. That pretty much describes the Schaefer approach. What a way it would be to bow out, too.
It might be a pipe dream, or idle summer speculation. He might not have the stamina or the long-distance staying power to mount a major campaign that would get very heated - and could get very nasty.
But the only way he can make such a scenario possible is to win re-election as state comptroller.
Mr. Schaefer may titillate us for another year about filing for governor. It's a remote possibility, though. More likely, when all the political maneuver has concluded, we'll still be calling him Comptroller Schaefer.
Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.