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  •   Rehrmann Still Seeks a Spark

        Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke stands by his candidate for governor during the fund-raiser for Eileen M. Rehrmann at the city's convention center.
    Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke stands by his candidate for governor during a fund-raiser last month for Eileen M. Rehrmann. (By Susan Biddle/TWP)
    By Donald P. Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, August 2, 1998; Page B01

    The moment Eileen M. Rehrmann heard last week that Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) was considering spending more tax money on another professional sports facility -- this time a racetrack -- the underdog figured she had been handed the issue she needed to seriously challenge the incumbent.

    Rehrmann hurriedly called a news conference in front of the about-to-open Baltimore Ravens football stadium, built at Glendening's urging with $220 million in public funds. With a half-dozen supporters waving signs and chanting, "No Glendening Downs," she denounced the racetrack idea last week as the governor's latest giveaway scheme for undeserving sports moguls.

    But before the 53-year-old Democrat could return to the campaign trail armed with a potential winning issue, her past caught up with her. Reporters questioned how she could come down so hard on Glendening when, as a state legislator in the mid-1980s, she had voted for the legislation that initially authorized state funding of the Baltimore football stadium, along with a new ballpark for the baseball Orioles.

    It seemed the latest fumbled opportunity for Rehrmann, a Baltimore area county administrator. Polls show she has yet to capitalize on the weaknesses of an incumbent governor -- one who has never commanded a decisive majority of the Maryland electorate.

    Just six weeks before the Sept. 15 primary, polls show Glendening far ahead of Rehrmann and the lesser-known Terry McGuire in the contest for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. On the GOP side, meanwhile, Republican front-runner Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the 1994 GOP nominee who came within 6,000 votes of beating Glendening, is far out in front of Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

    "Most of the pundits already are focusing on a Glendening-Sauerbrey rematch in November," said political scientist Herb Smith of Western Maryland College.

    Ecker has displayed little evidence of an effective challenge to Sauerbrey, failing even to collect the necessary campaign contributions to qualify for public financing, as he initially sought.

    Rehrmann, by contrast, has created some buzz, largely by securing the unexpected endorsements of the two most prominent black officials in Maryland, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D) and Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), and by gaining financial backing from some business executives disenchanted with Glendening.

    But so far at least, the two-term Harford county executive has been unable to translate such support into a broader-based coalition against Glendening. While she has repeatedly raised questions about Glendening's trustworthiness, she has yet to find a policy difference with the governor that resonates to her benefit. Polls suggest that almost half the electorate does not even know who the seemingly prim, almost shy politician is.

    Meanwhile, analysts note, Rehrmann has allowed herself to be painted by Glendening as the pro-gambling candidate, thanks to her outspoken support of allowing slot machines at Maryland's three existing racetracks -- an effort to prop up the horse racing industry and to finance an ambitious education program.

    Her stance on slots was a critical factor in winning the support of Schmoke and Larry Gibson, an adviser to Schmoke and now Rehrmann's campaign manager. But the very stance that helped lift her profile in the media also generated skittishness from some key Democrats who might otherwise be attracted by her anti-Glendening message.

    "I like Eileen a lot. We were friends in the legislature," said Stewart Bainum Jr., a prominent Montgomery County business executive and former state delegate. "But it would be difficult for me to ever support someone fully who wants to bring slot machines into the state where I am raising my family."

    Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker said Rehrmann is "on the wrong side of the slots issue." Although voters are about evenly divided on the question, Coker said the opponents are more intense in their feelings.

    Rehrmann, who has received generally positive reviews for the fiscally conservative manner in which she has led Harford, remains upbeat about her chances. She and her campaign advisers point to the large number of undecided voters -- 28 percent in a poll conducted for several media outlets by Potomac Research -- and say that among those who know her, she is competitive with the governor.

    Moreover, Rehrmann repeatedly insists, "I'm the only one who can beat the Republicans in November."

    On the slots issues, Rehrmann argues that voters will come to see the practical reasons for her position. Neighboring Delaware, which has slots at its three racetracks, has directed more than $700 million in profits to education in the last 30 months, and West Virginia now has a similar scheme.

    "Delaware is using Marylanders' money to put computers in every classroom," Rehrmann said. That's money, she added, that could finance her plan to hire 2,000 new teachers and build schools.

    Despite the failure of her campaign to catch fire, political analysts say Rehrmann still has time to make a move. A survey two weeks ago by Potomac Research found Glendening leading Rehrmann 54 percent to 17 percent, but company president Keith Haller said Rehrmann's numbers may be somewhat understated.

    "There may be a hidden vote for her" if Schmoke and Curry are able to persuade large numbers of African Americans to turn out for her, Haller said. Curry has been running tough radio ads criticizing Glendening for his record on education, but the governor also has a deep well of support among many other African American leaders.

    Despite her handling of the issue so far, Haller said Rehrmann still might exploit Glendening's comments last week about state support for a new racetrack facility in Maryland.

    "Glendening handed her a gorgeous issue on a silver platter," he said, noting that three-fourths of the state's voters are unhappy about the state paying for the Ravens' facility and chipping in on the Washington Redskins' new stadium in Prince George's County.

    "It doesn't look like she's got a lot of momentum," Bainum said. But he added: "The big issue for Glendening is money for stadiums. . . . The public certainly understands that. I'd drive that point home."

    Rehrmann's biggest handicap may be a lack of money for an expensive television advertising blitz, according to analysts. Along with Ecker, she's had to raise her name recognition by shoe-leather campaigning, which is time-consuming and often reaps few rewards.

    The two underdogs crossed paths Thursday at a candidates' picnic sponsored by the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce. It attracted almost as many candidates (60) as regular voters (100).

    As they wandered through the picnic groves and into a shelter, where people munched hot dogs and sipped drinks, neither of the gubernatorial candidates attracted more attention than the myriad local candidates.

    "It's unfortunate that she is not supporting the leader of her party," said Margaret Hays, who is running for an at-large spot on the Democratic state central committee. "The entrenched Democrats are solidly for Glendening."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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