The Message, Money Key in Top Md. Race
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 20, 1998; Page B01
With the Maryland governor's race too close to call, the winner almost certainly will be the candidate with the money and the message to win over thousands of independent-minded Democratic voters who live in the suburbs around Washington and Baltimore.
Political analysts say those voters are a fairly contented group right now, with the economy humming along, although they harbor lingering fears about schools, rapid residential growth and a national sense of moral drift. As a result, the six-week campaign for those fickle votes will be expensive and potentially vitriolic, waged with television advertising during daytime soap operas, late-night talk shows and morning news shows at a frequency unprecedented in Maryland.
Already Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and his Republican rival, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, are positioning themselves for a rematch of their race four years ago that will emphasize their sharp ideological contrasts. This year, however, the two candidates are almost evenly matched not only in the polls but also in campaign cash. Both campaigns have raised at least $4 million so far, and Sauerbrey actually is scheduled to advertise more than Glendening on local network affiliates in the campaign's final days though that could change with more media buys.
For Sauerbrey, who came within 6,000 votes of beating Glendening four years ago, the trick is to convince Maryland Democrats that she is not a Trojan horse for the far right, as Glendening has made her out to be. She has proposed a specific tax cut aimed at a key voting bloc, senior citizens, and she is using President Clinton's ethical troubles to signal all voters that it's time to throw Democrats out of office.
Although some of the themes voiced by the candidate echo the 1994 election, which Sauerbrey lost by 5,993 votes, much else is different this time. New issues and controversies and the yet-to-be-determined effect of the Monica S. Lewinsky affair have clouded the political atmosphere for this election.
More importantly, this time Glendening has a four-year record as governor, offering both achievements of which to boast and some missteps he must overcome. Sauerbrey is also far better known this time, and she has tried to present a more moderate face to Maryland's electorate.
What stands out the most, however, is that Glendening and Sauerbrey start the general election campaign where they ended four years ago: They are virtually tied. If anything, Sauerbrey appears to be the candidate coming out of last week's primary with momentum, closing the gap from midsummer polls, which showed the governor with a lead. A Potomac Survey Research poll for several media outlets two weeks ago showed Glendening with 45 percent of the vote and Sauerbrey with 44.4 percent an unusually close race for an incumbent enjoying good economic times.
"Glendening's gotten every break in the world, and he still hasn't put it away," said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes gubernatorial races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
In 1994, Glendening defeated Sauerbrey by winning the state's three most populous jurisdictions, Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore. Sauerbrey won the other 21 jurisdictions, drawing her greatest successes in the thinly populated Eastern Shore and Western Maryland.
But the governor has suffered some hits since then among his core constituencies. His decision to help finance two football stadiums alienated many voters in Montgomery, a crucial battleground. By the same token, some of his policies appear to have helped him elsewhere. A Washington Post poll earlier this year showed Glendening had greatly improved his standing in Southern Maryland; he also has gained in Baltimore County.
Analysts of both parties agree that Democratic crossover voters such as Gene Moore, 68, a retired truck driver in Hagerstown, will be crucial come November. "I would have voted for Sauerbrey if I could," said Moore, who said he refused to vote for a gubernatorial candidate in last week's Democratic primary.
Moore and other disaffected Democrats will have that chance, and both campaigns are planning a blitz of television commercials between now and Nov. 3 to win them over.
Some Democratic consultants say Glendening has built a record during his four-year term that has broad appeal to Maryland voters which if articulated clearly could win him reelection easily.
The state budget now includes more money for public education a top concern among voters during good times than at any point in history. He passed one the strictest gun control bills in the country, and his initiatives to curb sprawl have the potential to win over even conservative Republicans who are tired of traffic and other problems that come with too much development.
"The governor has a plan to monitor growth," said Lydia Ramsden, 60, a Howard County Republican who is considering voting for Glendening this fall.
Analysts say Glendening must solidify his base by again mobilizing traditional Democratic constituencies such as union members, women and African Americans. But his relationship with some of them is wobbly: Glendening's decision to rebuke Clinton for his role in the Lewinsky affair angered many black voters.
Moreover, some Democratic analysts fear that Clinton's scandal will keep discouraged female voters home; the governor is trying to energize them by highlighting Sauerbrey's past opposition to abortion.
"He's done a good job these past four years," said Betty Bethards, 58, a self-described "tried and true Democrat" in Howard County who voted for the governor in last week's primary. "He could have handled Clinton more diplomatically, but I'm going to support him."
Polls suggest, however, that a big chunk of voters do not credit the governor for improvements, despite a barrage of advertisements focusing on his record in education and plans to build or renovate 6,000 public school classrooms. One ad concludes with the governor asking viewers not only for their vote but to volunteer in local schools. The ads are a punchy 30 seconds, but privately, many top Democrats panned them as unfocused.
Signs are that Glendening will unveil a tougher strategy, focused on drawing contrasts between his positions and Sauerbrey's General Assembly record of opposition to abortion, gun control and some environmental protection measures.
"She's changing all of her basic values," Glendening said last week. "When we make [that] clear, I predict you're going to see the same strong support" for his campaign.
As a conservative in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, Sauerbrey not only has to mobilize her base but also must carve into the governor's to win. As GOP media consultant Bruce Mentzer said: "If Ellen cannot hold her own in Prince George's and Montgomery, she cannot win. The true battlefield will be those Washington suburbs."
The first part could prove easy, analysts say, because the grass-roots collection of religious conservatives, small-business people and other core Republicans tend to come out in droves especially with a national scandal embroiling the Democratic Party. "You couldn't keep these voters away from the polls with a gun," said Duffy, of the Cook Political Report.
The Clinton ethics scandal also has made voters more receptive to a good-government message, analysts say, and Sauerbrey has sharpened her remarks about Glendening's past missteps, such as controversy over his pension deal from Prince George's.
But Sauerbrey has her own past to deal with; many voters have sour memories of her bitter and unsuccessful challenge of the 1994 election results. Sauerbrey also will have to answer questions about the sincerity of her recent efforts to moderate herself. Moreover, unlike four years ago, when her proposal to cut the state income tax 24 percent caught fire, Sauerbrey has no single message to take to voters.
"I don't think there's any one, single magic bullet out there. There's no car tax issue" as in Virginia's gubernatorial race last year, said one person close to Sauerbrey's campaign. "It's going to be putting together a quilt of issues like honesty, integrity, education, seniors, taxes and economic development."
Four years ago, the GOP turned out more of its voters than the Democrats did, 65 percent to 61 percent. Because Democrats outnumber Republicans, Sauerbrey must work all the harder to reach out to disaffected Democrats. Last time, she garnered 19 percent of the Democratic vote and 57 percent of the independent vote.
Sauerbrey spent almost $250,000 in the Washington market in the first two weeks of September, running minute-long spots that engaged viewers long enough to tell a new story about a someone who four years ago was tarred as either too conservative or simply the tax-cut candidate. The ads show a smiling Sauerbrey, first in front of the Baltimore row house where she grew up, then at the steel mill where her father worked and finally with students at the school where she taught biology.
"Her ad was clearly superior to the governor's," said political scientist Herb Smith, who sometimes advises Democrats. "Her campaign is light years ahead of four years ago."
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