The unusual and understated political style that earned Blair Lee III the state's second highest office and a chance to serve as acting governor for the past 15 months, turned out to be his undoing in Tuesday's primary election for governor, which Lee lost to Harry R. Hughes.
"If killer instinct is the word," said Joseph G. Anastasi, Lee's campaign manager, "he doesn't have it. He just wasn't hungry enough to want to be governor, to take that extra step."
Lee, 62, whose 30-year political career was pulled up short with the stunning upset, acknowledged as much in a recent interview when asked about the importance of winning. "It would be nice to be listed in the Maryland Manual with all the other governors," he said. "But it isn't a matter of life and death with me."
Since becoming acting governor in June 1977, while suspended Gov. Marivn Mandel was preparing for his second political corruption trial, Lee consistently has disappointed his supporters with his tendency towards oplitical self-destruction.
While taking a few jabs at the convicted Mandel and promising an end to the state's recent era of corruptioners with his tendecy toward politi-for most of Mandel's appointees and failed to make the total separation from Mandel that some of Lee's advisers recommended.
Lee's first session with the General Assembly turned out to be a dismal failure when he couldn't get many of his programs enacted. He also gained a reputation for vacilation by changing positions on crucial issues until finding a comfortable middle ground.
In his campaign for governor, Lee delegated total authority to his 33-year-old son, Blair Lee IV, who had no experience in managing a statewide campaign. After a series of mistakes, the younger Lee was moved aside for the more seasoned Anastasi.
Even his supporters began viewing Lee as arrogant when he flatly refused to issue position papers. They began wringing their hands in the campaign's final days when Lee refused to name the source of a $40,000 campaign loan and released a batch of negative radio ads against Theodore G. Venetoulis, whom he considered his chief rival.
By the end of the campaign, his most loyal backers were hoping Lee could win the election "in spite of himself." Their hopes were pinned on the television commercials he was able to pay for with his large war chest and the old line Democratic organizations that supported him.
"He had everything going for him," said State Sen. Victor Crawford, a longtime Lee ally from Montgomery County, who supported the acting governor in the primary. "He had the governorship handed him on a silver platter and he blew it."
When Lee's strategists search for an excuse to explain Lee's loss - it was the first time a sittimg governor lost a primary election in modern Maryland political history - they talk about voter protests and need for change.
They say the low voter turnout in Lee's home base of Montgomery County and in the organization strongholds of Baltimore made victory almost impossible for the acting governor who spent as much as $60,000 in "walk-around" money to help get out the vote on primary elelction day.
In the final analysis, they say, it was Lee's failure to grasp the initiative, to make full use of his incumbency, that caused his loss.