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  •   Candidate Struggles For Voter Recognition

      Ralph Neas
      Ralph Neas chatted at a fund-raiser in March at the National Democratic Club in the District. He now works crowds at suburban Metro stations. (File Photo)
    By Manuel Perez-Rivas
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, May 17, 1998; Page B05

    On Capitol Hill, Montgomery County Democratic congressional candidate Ralph G. Neas can count on a who's who of Washington politics to help him in a pinch.

    In recent months, the former civil rights lobbyist now seeking to unseat Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.) has drawn such power brokers as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) to speak at his fund-raisers. He has received campaign contributions from the likes of high-powered lawyer and presidential confidante Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and former U.S. representative Tony P. Coelho (D-Calif.).

    Yet in his bid to beat Morella, a popular six-term House member who has breezed past her previous 8th District challengers, Neas finds himself trying to get to know people like Konrad Stutzman, 28, who works in office equipment sales in Gaithersburg and is largely a stranger to the halls and hearing rooms of Washington politics.

    Stutzman came upon Neas on Friday morning, as the candidate stood outside the Bethesda Metro station, shaking hands and handing out campaign literature to commuters rushing past. "I know he's running against Morella," Stutzman said a moment later, when asked what he knew about Neas. "But that's it."

    It's a different story on Capitol Hill, where Neas has been a familiar face for more than 25 years. At a casual fund-raiser at the National Democratic Club on Ivy Street SE this spring, more than a half-dozen congressional Democrats stopped in to say hello, including Gephardt, Reps. Albert R. Wynn, Steny H. Hoyer and Elijah E. Cummings, all of Maryland, and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.).

    Neas first worked on the Hill as a Republican legislative aide. Then, after a life-threatening bout with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that left him paralyzed for three months, he returned to Washington and went to work as the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. In that position, he received national attention for his fight to block the appointment of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court and for his efforts to win passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act and other civil rights legislation.

    Neas, 52, has lived in Montgomery County for 16 years and currently resides in Bethesda with his wife, Katy. He said he switched parties two years ago because he believed the GOP leadership no longer represented his liberal Republican roots. Soon after that, he began thinking about a run for Congress.

    In the time since he announced his candidacy in November, Neas has been working relentlessly to lay the foundation for his campaign, aggressively raising money and meeting almost nonstop with Montgomery County Democratic loyalists, many of whom consider him their most serious threat to Morella since she was first elected in 1986.

    Still, even they acknowledge that the longtime Capitol Hill staffer, lobbyist and lawyer faces a steep, uphill battle in trying to defeat the affable Morella. "His biggest challenge is Mrs. Morella's popularity," said George Leventhal, the county's Democratic chairman, who nonetheless thinks Neas will pose a strong challenge and is "the best candidate the Democrats have fielded against her in 10 years."

    Last week, Neas began a new, and key, phase of his campaign: stepping up efforts to increase his name recognition with voters, a factor in which he is at a distinct disadvantage against Morella, who is widely viewed as Montgomery's most popular politician.

    He went knocking on doors in Potomac, and he started campaigning at Red Line Metro stations. In three morning rush hours, he said, he shook hands and greeted more than 1,500 Montgomery commuters.

    "The most important thing we can do between now and the election is meet as many voters as we can," Neas said Friday, in between handshakes with passing commuters in Bethesda. "Name recognition is crucial."

    Running in a district where voters know the incumbent as "Connie," Neas has chosen to emblazon his bumper stickers, posters, letterhead and campaign buttons with his first name -- "Ralph!" -- in a quest for a similar familiarity.

    His message, however, is more complex. He hopes to rouse Democratic voters -- who significantly outnumber Republicans in the district -- from their past willingness to elect a Republican. Neas wants to do this by highlighting Morella's record, particularly votes in which she has sided with a majority led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), whose core beliefs he believes are anathema to most Montgomery County voters. In a year when 11 seats could mean the difference in which party controls the House of Representatives, Neas hopes this message will appeal to die-hard Democrats.

    For voters like Stutzman, however, Neas's message might seem beside the point. Stutzman said his key issues in this election are taxes and traffic congestion. And other opponents have tried with little success to use partisan appeals against the liberal-leaning Morella.

    "The voters in this district don't want a cookie-cutter Republican or Democrat, as Ralph presumably believes would be better," said William C. Miller Jr., Morella's top aide. "The people of Montgomery County don't want a robot in Congress. They want somebody who will vote with their intellect, not their party."

    But Neas believes his rhetoric will resonate. "This county is a county that knows its politicians, that knows politics," he said. "Voters here are very sophisticated."

    With a campaign bankroll of more than $350,000 in March, when campaign finance reports were last filed, and a goal of raising $1 million by November, Neas will likely have the means to get his message across on television and radio and in mailings.

    Keith Haller, a Bethesda-based pollster, said Neas has been effective in laying the groundwork for his campaign, particularly in the area of fund-raising, and "he's kept pretty much everybody else out of the race." In 1996, nine Democrats vied for the party nomination. Neas's only primary challenger this year so far is Donald M. Deichman, an agriculture specialist and former Peace Corps volunteer from Germantown, who lost a primary race for the seat in 1994.

    Still, Neas must close a huge name recognition gap, Haller said, and give voters a reason not to vote for Morella. "No challenger before has ever been able to do so. She remains a very popular incumbent."

    Outside the Bethesda Metro station Friday, Neas tried to start chipping away. "Hi. I'm Ralph Neas, running for Congress," he'd tell approaching commuters, with a ready smile and an outstretched hand, a blue "Ralph!" sticker on his lapel. Some stopped to shake his hand and get a campaign brochure. Others just kept walking.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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