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  •   Republicans Strain to Fill Md. Ticket

    By Daniel LeDuc
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, February 24, 1998; Page B01

    Despite strides in voter registration and a growing legislative influence, Maryland's Republicans have entered this critical election year woefully short of candidates for some of the state's most prominent offices.

    No strong candidates have emerged to challenge the Democratic incumbents for U.S. senator, state attorney general or comptroller. Only Ellen R. Sauerbrey, in her bid for governor, has mounted a significant campaign in a year in which all state offices are up for grabs.

    Some politicians say there's a chance that the lack of other strong GOP candidates could actually help Sauerbrey, who is being challenged for the Republican nomination by Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker. That could be especially true if fans of such incumbents as Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) don't feel she's threatened and don't turn out to vote for Democrats -- such as Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- who face tougher races. The shortage of GOP candidates is indicative not only of the strength of the incumbents -- most notably, Mikulski -- but also of just how fledgling the Republican Party's efforts are to mount true opposition to Maryland's entrenched Democrats.

    Democrats have a long history of power in Maryland and still outnumber Republicans in voter registration by 2 to 1. It has been in only the last decade that the GOP has been able to rise up as an outnumbered but occasionally potent adversary for the Democrats in the General Assembly.

    And while the GOP has begun to win important positions in some county and local governments, it has yet to develop a deep bench of candidates to turn to for important statewide offices.

    "We don't have the long history," acknowledged Joyce Lyons Terhes, GOP state chairman. But she insisted that the party would field a strong slate and said that there was behind-the-scenes maneuvering that would result in a list of candidates to be announced once the General Assembly session ends in April.

    "I've talked to some people interested in the attorney general's race," Terhes said. But she declined to identify anyone specifically.

    The filing deadline for state offices is July 6. But the reality is that any candidate not seriously engaged by now is starting the campaign late, behind in fund-raising and generating name recognition. Moreover, any late entrant would face some of the state's most popular and entrenched incumbents.

    No candidate has filed nor can party activists name, even off the record, a likely challenger to Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. The former lieutenant governor, under Gov. Harry Hughes, was first elected attorney general in 1986. Four years ago, he was reelected with 54 percent of the vote.

    Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, who was first elected in 1958, has served in statewide office longer than anyone else in Maryland history. He was challenged four years ago by Republican Timothy Mayberry, of Boonsboro, Washington County, but won with 61 percent of the vote. This year, Mayberry is again challenging Goldstein.

    Mikulski, who has collected $1.4 million in campaign contributions, was reelected six years ago with 71 percent of the vote and this year is seeking her third term. Although two Republicans have filed against her -- Michael Gloth, a Finksburg doctor, and Bradlyn McClanahan, of Annapolis -- party activists say they don't expect them to be contenders.

    Some GOP strategists say that Howard A. Denis, the former Montgomery County senator who ran in the primary for lieutenant governor four years ago, had indicated that he might challenge Mikulski. He would at least have some name recognition. But in an interview last week, Denis said "no way" would he be running.

    Such reluctance underscores just how potent Mikulski is. "The fact is, probably the strongest Republican couldn't beat Mikulski," one GOP operative said.

    Some Democrats privately theorize that Sauerbrey, the leading contender for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, is trying to make the most of that reality and is discouraging any GOP candidates who might cause Curran, Goldstein and especially Mikulski to feel challenged and campaign aggressively. As the theory goes, Sauerbrey wouldn't mind if Mikulski, Curran and Goldstein voters who aren't enthusiastic about Glendening stay home on election day. In what could become a rerun of the close race between Sauerbrey and Glendening four years ago, any lack of Democratic turnout can only help the GOP.

    For her part, Sauerbrey insists that this is not her strategy and that she wants as strong a Republican slate as the party can muster. She said it is only natural that the GOP, a minority in Maryland, would need time to build up a roster of candidates. Still, Sauerbrey allowed, "It doesn't help Glendening if the other statewide candidates aren't energized to help him."

    Even if that were Sauerbrey's plan, Democrats do not appear too concerned. Instead, they said that the dearth of Republican candidates reflects the GOP's weakness as a party that they say has become too conservative for most Maryland voters. "Other than Sauerbrey, they don't have much in the way of quality candidates this year," said Richard Parsons, a Democratic consultant in Silver Spring. Republicans, he said, are "putting all their eggs in a pretty weak basket. When she loses, they have nothing."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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