When Elizabeth W. Spencer resigned from the Montgomery County school board last month to run for Congress from the 8th district, some well-known moderate Republicans privately hailed her entry as an alternative to the combative GOP frontrunner, school board member Marian L. Greenblatt.
Now with less than four weeks remaining until the Sept. 14 primary, Spencer has raised only $2,500, a pittance for a congressional race, and she has not yet held a fund-raiser.
She is badly trailing Greenblatt in organization, she has not yet printed any literature, and her only bumper stickers are left over from her 1978 school board race with the words "for school board" cropped off.
Moreover, those moderates who were quietly cheering her candidacy have remained anonymous, sometimes offering advice but not willing to endorse her publicly until she can show some assemblage of a campaign. Spencer does not have the public endorsement of a single well-known Republican in the county.
Spencer, a 56-year-old Southern Baptist from Kentucky, is content with the pace of her campaign, insisting that voters will nominate her on her record as a thinking and analytical moderate on the school board. She is also counting on a reservoir of anti-Greenblatt sentiment. But she knows she is playing catch-up.
"I'm spending too much time getting it all together," she said. "I have had no fund-raisers to date. I am getting lined up a series of coffees and receptions." Spencer missed the Washington-area workshop last month sponsored by the Republican National Committee, but said she will attend a similar workshop in Atlanta this week.
"She doesn't have a whole lot of money and she doesn't have a whole lot of time," said her volunteer campaign consultant Quinn Scamahorn, head of a Silver Spring telemarketing firm that has done telephone fund raising for GOP candidates. "Will we be able to catch up between now and the 14th? Dollar-for-dollar, I think that's doubtful. Organization-wise, I think we can."
Said Spencer's campaign coordinator John Purcell, "If we don't get a significant amount of help, we'll have a hell of a battle."
The slow pace of Spencer's campaign has fueled doubts about whether she really wants the job, or whether she merely put herself in the race as an alternative to the conservative Greenblatt, her philosophical sparring partner on the school board.
The speculation that Spencer really does not want the job has persisted partly because of the well-circulated rumor that before she announced her candidacy, Spencer was planning to move to Kentucky where she inherited a 400-acre farm.
Spencer is aware of the doubts. "Obviously, I wouldn't have gotten into it if I didn't want to win," she said. "It's an expensive, wearing operation."
She prefers to discuss issues, although she and Greenblatt differ little on substantive policy concerns. Both would like to balance the federal budget and decrease federal spending. Both have accused incumbent Democrat Michael Barnes, who is running for reelection, of being too liberal on fiscal issues and spending. "Mr. Barnes represents the thinking of the 1960s," Spencer said recently, echoing Greenblatt's favorite charge against the two-term incumbent. So the difference between Greenblatt and Spencer is largely style and, according to Spencer, length of experience in the community and a reputation for moderation.
But some Republicans and potential supporters are dismayed that Spencer has not seemed to grasp the nuts-and-bolts reality of a modern-day congressional campaign: the preeminence of money.
"I told her she had to raise $10,000 to $20,000 to make a viable race in the primary," said county GOP chairman Paul Clark. "She said she didn't think she could do that. But you've got 25,000 Republican primary voters, and you've got to reach those people. If you can't reach them, it doesn't matter how good a candidate you are."
Said one GOP county campaign strategist, who asked not to be identified: "I think what Elizabeth is banking on is the anti-Greenblatt sentiment out there. But she has no money. Let's face it, Elizabeth Spencer is not a household word. And there is that segment out there that voted for Marian in the past and will probably do so again. . . If Elizabeth wants to win this race, she's got to spend some money."
Purcell and Scamahorn, said they expect about 10 percent of the vote to be anti-Greenblatt.
Scamahorn said Spencer could benefit from anti-Greenblatt sentiment in the eastern portions of the county most affected by the school board's controversial school closing decisions. But those voters, primarily in District 20 in Silver Spring, are overwhelmingly Democratic primary voters, and would not be able to support either Republican in the primary.
Also, the anti-Greenblatt vote could be split between Spencer and two other more conservative candidates, Phillip Buford, an IBM engineer, and Kurt Summers. Those two challenges from the right, from staunch conservatives who don't think Greenblatt is true to the faith, lends credence to Greenblatt's claim to be the centerist candidate in a county with a tradition of rejecting conservative politicians.
Scamahorn said he has advised Spencer to avoid attacking Greenblatt, and concentrate on building up her own image as a thoughtful speaker on issues. It is a suggestion Spencer has taken to heart. She rarely mentions Greenblatt by name and has passed over clear opportunities to attack Greenblatt. She refused to comment, for example, on Greenblatt's widely rebuked accusation that incumbent Barnes supports the Palestine Liberation Organization.
In a televised candidate's forum aired Aug. 14 (WJLA-TV), the moderator asked Greenblatt if she stood by the PLO accusation, which has been denounced by county Jewish leaders. Greenblatt defended the charge.
Spencer, given a chance to rebutt the accusations, said only, "I don't want to get into a personality conflict."