Ruppersberger facing uphill battle


Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger had all the advantages in the 2nd Congressional District's Democratic primary. He is known by nearly every voter. His county was just named one of the best-managed in the nation. He has a professional campaign staff, more money than anyone in the race and a 17-year streak of electoral victories.

But for all that, he received barely more than 50 percent of the vote. Ruppersberger got 32,307 votes, while a field of four other Democratic candidates few people had heard of six months ago received a combined 32,062 - just 245 fewer.

He now faces former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who won 80 percent of the vote in the Republican primary, in what has been billed as one of the closest House races in the nation.

Although Ruppersberger said he wasn't surprised by his vote total Tuesday, political observers say it can't be a good sign - his name recognition is so high that people who voted against him likely did so for a reason.

"He's in big trouble in November," said Matthew A. Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University, who was critical of Ruppersberger's decision to expand the Towson jail. "A lot of those Democrats who voted for other candidates are probably going to switch over to Helen Bentley. In fact, they have done so before."

Bentley's campaign coordinator, Michael S. Kosmas, said he was delighted with the results. If voters were willing to support a political unknown over Ruppersberger, he said, it should be easy to get them to pick Bentley, a five-term House of Representatives veteran who has been promised a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

"Every vote that was against Dutch today will be a vote coming to us in November," Kosmas said Tuesday night.

At his victory party early yesterday morning, Ruppersberger said the results matched what his polls predicted. He said he chose not to go blow-for-blow with his chief opponent, Oz Bengur, a businessman who spent more than $600,000 - mostly of his own money - in a campaign sharply critical of Ruppersberger's record.

Bengur went on television in a series of ads in which he spoke directly into the camera and accused Ruppersberger of being arrogant and dismissive of residents' concerns. As evidence, he pointed to the decision to expand the jail despite community opposition, a plan in 2000 to revitalize older neighborhoods by condemning property and giving it to developers, reports of Ruppersberger's cozy relationships with MBNA executives and allegations that companies he controlled profited from county business.

Ruppersberger countered with an advertisement showing him working in the county executive's office and meeting with residents. A voice-over trumpeted his accomplishments in office and promised that if elected, he would work on issues such as protecting Social Security and improving education.

Ruppersberger spent less than a third as much as Bengur did, thus saving his money for what is expected to be a difficult race against Bentley.

"We decided we would not be sucked into a negative campaign and would try to stay on our message and record and the positive things that occurred," Ruppersberger said. "We have work to do. We need to do work in areas where I have not represented people. That's where we have to spend a lot of our time."

But the results suggest Ruppersberger faces more problems than introducing himself to voters outside Baltimore County.

Ruppersberger won a little more than 52 percent of the primary vote in Baltimore County, barely more than he did in the district overall, which includes parts of Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Harford counties, places where his record is less well-known.

"He should do appreciably better in his home county. That's his base," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster. "That's one of the fundamental rules of politics, protect your base."

In interviews with dozens of Democratic primary voters in the district on Tuesday, few Bengur voters said they chose him because they liked his politics. Rather, many said they were voting against Ruppersberger. And several Ruppersberger voters said they supported him reluctantly.

"It just shows there's some residue left over from that [condemnation] battle, and he's got to overcome it," said Theodore G. Venetoulis, ex-county executive.

It's not unusual for an outgoing Baltimore County executive to have trouble. Only Spiro T. Agnew, the former governor and vice president, has been elected to another office after his term.

Part of the reason for that, said former county executive Donald P. Hutchinson, is that Baltimore County vests so much power in its executive that voters see whatever happens in the county, both good and bad, as his doing. Moreover, people are accustomed to thinking of county executives as local politicians, so it's difficult for voters to make the transition to seeing them as national figures.

"People do have a view of him," Hutchinson said. "For those of us familiar with county government, he could not have been a better leader, could not have been a better county executive. But translating that to a congressional race? That's a task."

Venetoulis predicted that Ruppersberger will have the advantage in the city precincts in the district, Bentley will have an edge in Harford County, and the pair will slug it out in Anne Arundel, where neither is a known quantity, but that Ruppersberger needs to do well in Baltimore County.

Even if he mends his own fences, he'll face the same difficulty all Democrats in Baltimore County will this year: the popularity of Republican gubernatorial nominee Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Speculation among politicos isn't about whether Ehrlich will win the county, but whether he'll top 65 percent of the vote.

"The key ingredient in all of this is the Ehrlich factor," said Venetoulis, who is a Democrat. "It's a very strong plus that Republicans have in that county."

Bengur, however, said he doesn't see the results as being so dire for Ruppersberger. Bengur said he sees the race shaping up as a battle between the Republican and Democratic approaches to national issues, such as the economy, prescription drug coverage, Social Security and foreign policy.

The stakes in the race are larger than the fate of one district, Bengur said. Republicans have a slim majority in the House of Representatives. If they hold their advantage, they will retain power to shape the national agenda. If they don't, Democrats could gain the edge.

So, despite his misgivings about Ruppersberger, Bengur said he supports Ruppersberger.

"I always felt this was a critical year," Bengur said. "I think for working people in this country, the Democratic proposals are the right answer, and that means taking over Congress is even more essential."

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