Four years ago Jimmy Carter had some hidden pull among Maryland voters. The name beneath his on the Democratic ticket was Paul Sarbanes, a magnet who lured tens of thousands of voters to the Democratic column.
A hot and promising senatorial challenger -- like the victorious Sarbanes in 1976 -- is just what a state party organization needs to get out the vote in a presidential election year.
This year, however, Carter isn't getting much help from Edward T. Conroy, the Bowie state senator waging a heartfelt and but unpromising race against two-term Republican incumbent Charles McC. Mathias. In a state Ronald Reagan has an outside chance of carrying, Conroy has proved to be at best a nonfactor and at worst a detriment to the entire Democratic ticket.
"Look, Ed Conroy is a nice guy, but there's no way you could call him a heavyweight," said a high-ranking Maryland Democrat who refused to talk for attribution. "Is he a statesman? Is he stirring? Does he have charisma? No, he doesn't. He has all of those handicaps."
Officials of the Carter-Mondale campaign publicly praise Conroy for his hard-driving campaign, in which he has made 1,300 appearances and traveled 60,000 miles, hitting hard at Mathias's voting record at every stop.
But an indication of the tepid feeling toward Conroy was evident last week when the Carter campaign joined in a statewide whistlestop tour with Maryland political heavyweights to get out the vote for the Democratic ticket.
The first stop on the tour Thursday was the New Carrollton Metro station in Prince George's County. A Carter-Mondale official cheerily buttonholed bleary-eyed commuters, steering them toward the Democratic dignitaries. "Meet Attorney General Steve Sachs," the official urged. "Say hello to Sen. Paul Sarbanes."
Several feet away, smiling but somewhat out of the mainstream of the commuter flow, stood Conroy, staring eagerly at the constituents of his home county.
"Hey, here's the candidate," Sachs told the official, gesturing toward Conroy. But the Carter official continued to ignore Conroy as he showed off the heavyweight Maryland incumbents who had turned out on behalf of the president.
Even the most magnetic Maryland Democrat would have little hope against the formidable Mathias and his broad, bipartisan base. But the Conroy candidacy faces some additional hurdles. An outspoken foe of abortion and an advocate of increased defense spending, he has aliented much of the state party's liberal wing, even though he stands with them on any array of other social issues.
As a result, two of Baltimore City's liberal New Democratic Clubs have split their endorsement; Mathias for senator and Carter for president.
The Northwest Baltimore NDC, one of the most liberal Democratic organizations in the state, voted 31-0 earlier this month to endorse Mathias, after hearing pitches from Conroy and a Mathias aide. Four NDC members present at the meeting said Ben Cardin, speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, Del. Steve Sklar, and three Democratic members of the Baltimore City Council were also present and voting. Cardin, who has campaigned for Conroy, denied that he was at the meeting; Sklar said he thinks he left before the vote was taken.
Mathias also got the endorsement of the NDC branch in Bolton Hill, a wealthy liberal neighborhood on the fringes of downtown, although the club's board recommended unanimously that the membership make no endorsement rather than endorse a Republican.
Between them, the two NDCs are expected to distribute between 30,000 and 40,000 sample ballots on election day with their endorsements.
Explaining her feelings on the Mathias endorsement, Margie Smith, president of the Northwest Baltimore NDC said: "Ed Conroy put himself forward and asked us to evaluate him. His voting record in the Senate in Maryland is not acceptable to me. I see no indication that the man has a political philosophy I'm comfortable with or that he has the depth that Mac Mathias brings to the office."
Among the traditional Democratic Party organizations in Baltimore, Conroy has held his own. State Sens. Harry McGuirk and Joe Bonvegna, both powerhouses of the organizations, have campaigned actively for him. Conroy also got the endorsement of a Baltimore County Democratic federation that represents 33 clubs. But party officials say the defections are significant, particularly in the Democratic stronghold of Baltimore city, which Mathias has never carried.
"His [Conroy's] stand on abortion simply goes against the grain of a lot of Democrats," said a Carter campaign official. "This takes away the enthusiasm for busting one's tail."
The split endorsements posed a problem for the Carter-Mondale campaign, which has promised to pay ballot printing cost for local Democratic organizations that endorsed the president. "They told us they couldn't very well print up a Carter ballot with an 'x' by Mathias's name," an NDC official said. So the Carter campaign will pay only a portion of the printing costs for those clubs, according to state campaign chief David Doak.
Controy also has had trouble rallying a united front of local Democratic leaders to his side. While McGuirk and Bonvegna have been active on his behalf, other Baltimore Democrats such as Mayor William Donald Schaefer have kept their distance.
Schaefer introduced Conroy at a recent crab fest, but he has also appeared with Mathias several times this month at nonpolitical functions. In addition, the influential Clarence Mitchel Jr., a former executive of the NAACP in Washington and head of one of the city's most politically powerful black families, announced his support of Mathias, who has been a longtime political ally.
In his home county, Prince George's, where Democratic County Council members have recently raised $20,000 to $30,000 for their own major races, Conroy organizers asked 10 council members to sell $250 each in tickets to a fund-raiser. They got back only $800 -- $1,700 less than the minimum they had hoped for.
Conroy's supporters point out that the relationship between the top of the ticket and the senatorial race is a two-way street. If Conroy has rallied little support to Carter's side, the lukewarm feelings toward the president in Maryland are not helping Conroy either, they say.
In fact, Conroy spokesman Richard Scott said, Carter campaign officials have thanked Conroy for his hard campaigning that has kept the party before the public in a tough election year. "I think Ed has made great strides to get his message across to the voters. I give him A for effort," said Ed Crawford, deputy director of the Carter-Mondale campaign in Maryland. "I hope we have a positive impact on each other."
"Obviously there have been defections," Scott said. "But I think one of the biggest things that Sen. Conroy has done is that he has worked harder than anyone I've ever seen. He knows he's in a tough race. But no one has ever come at Mathias as hard as Ed Conroy has. Charles Mathias can't hide from his record."
At a press conference last week, Conroy Attacked Mathias" voting participation record, saying he missed one of every five votes in 1976 and 1978. "The reaction has been very good. People say they like what he's saying," Scott said.
Surveys of voters in the last two weeks have shown some significant Conroy gains, a sign that his vigorous pace and a beefed-up organization are bearing fruit. He also has lured some conservative Republican support away from Mathias, just as the incumbent has attracted liberal Democrats to his side.
But Conroy's name recognition, which is much lower than Mathias's, remains a problem, his organizers acknowledge.
Last week, as he toured the Giant Food warehouse in Landover, he stopped to shake hands with Michael Singer, who was eating in the dining hall, and solicited Singer's vote.
Asked if he planned to support the determined Conroy, Singer said later, "I have to be honest with you. I hadn't even heard of the man till he came up and shook my hand. I guess I just don't know what I'll do."