A week after he became the Republican nominee for governor of Maryland, Robert A. Pascal attended a session for gubernatorial nominees at the Republican National Committee. There he had breakfast with counterparts from other states, listened to strategy suggestions and was offered a photo session with President Reagan.
He declined the invitation.
Pascal says he doesn't remember whether he skipped the session because he had a scheduling problem. His campaign manager is more blunt: "Let's face it, from our perspective the people of Maryland did not vote for Reagan in the last election. It [a photo opportunity with Reagan] is not going to help us."
Ever since it became certain that Pascal was the party's nominee to unseat Maryland's Democratic Gov. Harry Hughes, Pascal has been facing the same problem: Ronald Reagan and the pall he casts over Pascal's effort to convince this overwhelmingly Democratic state that Republicans aren't all bad.
The rub for Pascal is this: Having made a name for himself as a compassionate Republican during two terms as Anne Arundel County executive, he must now face an electorate that didn't vote for Reagan in 1980, appears angry at the GOP because of growing economic woes, and seems inclined to toe the Democatic line on Nov. 2.
As a result Pascal, a former Democrat who has embraced many of the social concerns traditionally associated with Democrats, has spent much of his campaign time sidestepping the Reagan issue.
At his first postprimary press conference he avoided a request that he list the issues on which he agreed and disagreed with the Reagan administration by saying, "I came here to talk about prisons." At his second press conference, he dodged the question again, saying only, "On those issues that hurt Maryland, I will oppose the president."
Finally, at a third press conference last Thursday, Pascal came up with his list: He opposes budget-cutting RIFs (reductions in force); thinks Reagan has moved too slowly on enacting urban enterprise zones, initially acted insensitively toward minorities and moved too quickly on major budget cuts. On the pro-Reagan side, he supports new federalism and the emphasis on private enterprise.
But that is what Pascal says when pushed. For the most part he prefers to focus on his own record, which he says shows his desire to help the poor, unemployed and minorities, sounding as much like a Democrat as he can without alienating the 23 percent of the electorate who are Republicans.
Instead of talking about Reagan, whom he did not support in the 1980 GOP primaries, Pascal likens himself to Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, a decidedly moderate Republican. He has kept a distance from his GOP colleague Lawrence Hogan, who is running for the state's other Senate seat on a staunchly Reagan platform.
Pascal reminds listeners that he has been easily elected twice in a Democratic county and regularly mentions his journey to Capitol Hill with Baltimore's Democratic Mayor William Donald Schaefer to caution Congress about making severe budget cuts.
Still, overcoming the negative sides of his GOP tag has been difficult. "No question it could hurt in certain areas, in areas where there have been RIFs," he said, adding that October's unemployment figures could also hurt his effort.
And while Pascal tries to downplay Reagan, Hughes regularly brings him up, criticizing Republican insensitiviy and chastising Pascal for insisting that Reagan is not an appropriate issue for a state race.
"To suggest that a Republican administration, whose policies deprive the least fortunate of Maryland citizens, is not an issue in a campaign for the governorship of this state is to betray a lamentable lack of awareness of the requirements for fulfilling that office," said Hughes spokesman Lou Panos.
The Hughes campaign has also been reminding voters that despite Pascal's Democratic-sounding talk, he is still a member of the president's party. The strategy has worked: Some of the state's most powerful labor leaders privately have admitted they prefer Pascal to Hughes but that the Republican label scared them away. They came out recently in support of Hughes, an endorsement that hurt Pascal.