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  • Md. Elections '98
  •   Good Economy Blurs Sauerbrey Message

    Ellen Sauerbrey
    Ellen Sauerbrey (File Photo)
    By Daniel LeDuc
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, May 10, 1998; Page B01

    Four years ago, Ellen R. Sauerbrey rolled out of obscurity, with little money, to come within a breath of becoming Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation -- thanks largely to a simple pledge: She would cut income taxes 24 percent.

    Today, the former delegate from Baltimore County has all the advantages she lacked last time: money, name recognition and an organization painstakingly built since 1994 in her single-minded quest to again take on Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D).

    But this time around her message isn't nearly as simple.

    Largely because of good economic times and Glendening's own efforts to cut taxes, Sauerbrey has been forced to change her pitch on the campaign trail. What she is saying now is that times are good, but should be much better. Taxes have been cut, but should have been slashed deeper. Schools have money, but aren't spending it wisely. Crime may be down, but she will crack down on crooks harder.

    "I was talking about education, about public safety [four years ago]. It just wasn't until I got closer to the election that anybody paid any attention," Sauerbrey said in an interview. "I recognize the message [now] has been muddied. I also recognize that when people go to vote in November, they will have gotten only a pittance in tax relief."

    Sauerbrey has time to sharpen her message, but her difficulty in crafting a simple spiel is an indication that Glendening -- an embattled incumbent, to be sure -- also has made it hard for his opponents to stake out clear opposition to his new programs and tax cuts.

    "A reasonable person will look at [Sauerbrey's] message and be perplexed. I don't think that's a strong message," said John Bambacus, a political scientist at Frostburg State University and the Republican mayor of Frostburg, Md., who said he would support Glendening.

    "Glendening has finessed most of the issues that Ellen used the last time," he said. "It's similar to what Bill Clinton did in the last election by claiming Republican issues as his own."

    Bethesda-based Democratic pollster Keith Haller agreed."I'm not hearing that distinguishing ideology" from Sauerbrey, he said. "My strong guess is that everybody is hunkered down now and that she's desperately avoiding any sort of controversial stance."

    Sauerbrey certainly has no need to stake out any risky positions. With her name recognition virtually on par with Glendening's, she is the clear front-runner for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Her only opponent for the nomination is Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who has not been waging a vigorous campaign, thus allowing Sauerbrey to husband her resources for the November election.

    At the same time, Glendening has two prominent challengers for the Democratic nomination. Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann has received the backing of Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke; and former Redskins player-turned-insurance executive Ray Schoenke has promised to spend $2 million of his own money on his campaign.

    They also have the same problem Sauerbrey faces -- needing to attack Glendening's popular programs. As a result, they have turned to assaults on the governor's leadership and integrity.

    Should Glendening and Sauerbrey prevail in the primaries, the Republican's allies expect her to adopt a similar strategy. Taxes will not be the driving issue during the election, predicted House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman (R-Howard), a Sauerbrey adviser. "The driving thing is going to be trust and integrity and who do you believe?" he said.

    Glendening has had difficulty recovering from public doubts about him after a controversial pension he accepted and then rejected when leaving Prince George's County, where he served 12 years as county executive before becoming governor.

    But Sauerbrey has her own image difficulties to overcome. The latest Mason-Dixon Research poll showed that she and the governor share nearly identical popularity ratings, with about one-third of voters viewing them negatively. She lost the 1994 campaign to Glendening by fewer than 6,000 votes, and her dogged court challenges after the election alienated many people and earned her the nickname "Sour Grapes Sauerbrey."

    She also is a conservative Republican who opposes abortion and gun control. Those views could hurt her in a state where voters traditionally have been more liberal than those in other states, so Sauerbrey has spent the last four years trying to moderate her image.

    The question is, said Democratic pollster Haller, "Can an outspoken, really conservative Republican . . . transform herself into a more docile moderate without alienating her conservative base?"

    Lately, Sauerbrey has been avoiding that dilemma by devoting her speeches to advancing a traditional conservative agenda of reducing government interference with business. Sauerbrey frequently compares the state's economy with Virginia's, which, she said, under GOP governors the past four-plus years has experienced job growth 10 times as great as Maryland's.

    "The question I want to ask you is, 'Did you work less hard than people on the other side of the river in Virginia?' " she recently asked a group of contractors in Prince George's County. "Are we less intelligent? Are we less educated? Why is it that Maryland is lagging behind?"

    Such talk resonates with many businesspeople.

    "We should be the powerhouse state of the mid-Atlantic region," said Paul V. Facchina, owner of a La Plata-based construction company and a Sauerbrey supporter. "I look at Maryland like a lot of people may look at an athlete with a lot of talent not fulfilling their potential. It's just not happening here. It's a leadership issue."

    The question is whether enough voters agree with that assessment. Glendening has been touting Maryland's 4.6 percent unemployment rate, the lowest since the recession at the beginning of the decade. He will campaign strongly on the new money he has provided for school construction, $222 million this year alone, and is highlighting his new programs, from additional help for the developmentally disabled to new medical care for poor children. Much of that was made possible by a $350 million budget surplus, and Sauerbrey has said it is difficult to run against such popular programs.

    "She's going to run on less government and conservative values, and that's going to resonate in Maryland if you put a compassionate face on it," said Dick Leggitt, a St. Mary's County-based GOP media consultant who is not working in Maryland this year. "She can talk about education and not just throwing money at it. That will resonate with moderate voters and with conservative voters."

    Sauerbrey also has to convince voters that the 10 percent income tax cut approved by Glendening and the Democrat-controlled legislature should have been bigger. And she has pointed at the size of the surplus as proof she is right.

    Although he was initially reluctant to cut taxes, the governor signed on to a phased-in 10 percent cut in the income tax and this year agreed to speed up its implementation. It is less than Sauerbrey's 24 percent pledge, but it remains to be seen whether voters will complain.

    "If a 24 percent tax cut was a good idea four years ago, why isn't it even better now that times are good?" Sauerbrey adviser Lyn Nofziger said. "I think it can sell."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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