Attorney General Francis B. Burch, not a patient man by nature, is laying back. Like a crafty poker player, he's sitting out a few rounds, watching for hos opponents to drop a few hands and deplete their resources.
Burch wants to be Maryland's next governor. But after a blitz of fund-raising and campaign stumping, the polls say he's doing no better than third best amony the top Democratic candidates so he's decided to slow down and wait for an opening.
It is a simple strategy. Sit back and let the other contenders knock each other ooff, make each other look silly, bore the elextorate.Then, enter "Bill" Burch, fresh and well-financed. The candidate for all seasons. Power flows to power vacuums.
Burch's blueprint calls for acting Gov. Blair Lee III to fall on his face during the upcoming legislative session. Not only is Lee considered the front runner today, he is Burch chief competition for Old Guard Democratic support and money.
If Lee loses control of the session and fails to achieve his legislative goal, according to the plan, Burch will emerge as the best old-line Democrat to carry the banner against a field of outsiders whorepresent themselves as reformers.
Both Lee and Burch filled out the statewide tickets headed by suspended Gov. marvin Mandel in 1970 and 1974, and neither candidate is shy about inheriting Mandel's well-connected network of political bosses and wealthy campaign money-raisers.
"If Lee does a good job at the session, maybe he should be governor," conceded Phil Altfeld, the Baltimore lawyer who manages Burch's campaign. "If he screws up, it's a whole new ball game. Everyone's going to be looking for a winner."
The session, according to Altfeld, could also sound the death knell for another gubernatorial pretender, Senate President Steny H. Hoyer, who, Altfeld said, can only operate in Lee's Shadow or look like an opportunist by opposing him.
An important part of the waiting game for Burch is watching the cadidacy of Baltimore County executive Theodore Venetoulis, who calls himself a reformer while making inroads on the money and political support sought by Burch and Lee.
All if takes is time, Burch hopes, for Venetoulis to begin tripping over contradictory statements and displaying a lack of stature for the state house job. Although he is an experienced political strategist, Venetoulis has only held elective office since 1974.
A campaign that is waiting for an opening is a campaign in low gear. Altfeld is spending the holiday skiing in Colorade. Before leaving, he said, he pulled Burch off the campaign trail and exhorted him to keep up his suntan and stay rested.
Altfeld said he has recently fired key campaign aides and is now focusing his attention on a book of Burch's accomplishments during his public life. The theme, Altfeld said, will Burch is a guy who cares."
For the Burch strategy to work, his opponents will have to divide and conquer themselves, creating a vacuum for the 59-year-old Attorney General. There are risks in expecting seasoned politicans to fumble and hand their opponent the ball.
But the plan probably fit well at this stage of the campaign (10 months for primary day) for a candidate who has gained statwide recognition during three terms as Attorney General and has already raised about $300,000 in campaign funds.
It may be the soundest strategy for a candidate who has little interest in mass political organizing and who sees his best chances in an expensive mass media campaign that focuses on his matinee idol good looks and long career in public office.
With his name of pure hair, trim physique, and eternal tan, Burch fulfills the Hollywood image of "The Politician." When he steps out of his chauffeur-driven limousine, he looks every bit like a movie star on his way to the Academy Awards.
But even his supporters say Burchs speaking style is jejune and he often holds back when it comes to telling his audience what it wants to hear. "Bill is not a natural politican," Altfeld freely confesses.
There may be another reason for restricting Burch's campaign schedule this early in the race. When he comes under pressure, Burch is known to lose his temper, a trait that has become legendary amony reporters who cover him.
The last time his campaign was in high gear, it resulted in bad pblicity anda fit of bad temper. The strategy so backfired, according to political observers, that the Burch campaign has yet to recover.
Last spring, newspapers reported that Burch had enlisted his assistants as well as members of sensitive state regulatory boards and law enforcement agencies to help raise money for his ambitious testimonial dinner.
Although the May 31 affair netted as much as $300,000, the bad press stopped Burch from his goal of drawing up the big political money and scaring other candidates out of therace. In Altfeld's view, the article cost the campaign $100,000.
In a moment of pique, Burch accused reporters of "collaborating" with his political enemies to "sabotage his testimonial. He also walked out of a "live" television interview when he objected to certain questions.
Despite his slow start, Burch remains the best financed candidate at this stage of the campaign. He can afford to sit back a while and watch Maryland politics unfold.
Even if he limits his campaign appearances, he remains in the spotlight as the state's chief law enforcer. In recent months, his assistants ahve widely ciruclated his opinions and the results of crimminal investigations undertaken by his office.
The waiting game is tailor-made for a canby his office.
The waiting game is tailor-made for a candidate who has nothing to lose by waiting.