As he began a speech to students and faculty at Western Maryland College in Westminster last week, attorney general and Dem-ocratic gubernatorial hopeful Stephen H. Sachs reminded his audience that they would soon be hearing from his opponent, Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer.
"I was very interested to hear that Mayor Schaefer will be here in several weeks," Sachs told them. "I don't usually get several weeks close to Mayor Schaefer."
It was a point Sachs has been making everywhere as he presses his underdog campaign for governor. Despite Schaefer's commanding lead in the polls, the mayor is avoiding him, Sachs says, thereby denying voters a chance to make comparisons.
It is a point the attorney general hopes will become a larger issue for voters as the Democratic campaign enters its final four months.
At last count, the Sachs campaign had recorded more than 25 instances in which the mayor had passed up invitations to share a podium with the attorney general. The candidates have appeared together just once, at a Carroll County Democratic dinner in early March. It was an event that produced a sharp, if brief, exchange -- the sort voters might like to hear more of.
"It's crystal clear the guy is ducking us," Sachs' campaign manager, Blair Lee IV, said recently. "He can't keep it up, not even in Baltimore, where he writes the rules."
Most recently, Schaefer passed up a candidates' night last week hosted by the Democratic Club of Wicomico County in Salisbury. Judging by the reactions of some club members, Lee may be right when he predicts that voters will begin to demand that Schaefer appear and allow them to measure the candidates side by side.
Sue Piper, the program manager and one of more than 200 members of the Wicomico County club, said that Schaefer had waited nearly three months and then sent his regrets just two weeks before the candidates' night.
"He wrote and said he had a previous commitment," Piper said. "I don't buy it. The mayor is going to be in Ocean City tomorrow. Why couldn't he be here tonight?"
Piper said she had encountered no difficulty in getting the three candidates for attorney general and the four Democratic contenders for U.S. Senate to agree to appear together at the club. The mayor's refusal, she said, "leaves a bad taste in my mouth."
Club President Leo McNeil also said he was disappointed. "I thought there would be a good exchange and a chance for the voters to see the differences in the candidates," McNeil said. "The mayor needs more exposure on the Eastern Shore. The attorney general has been down many times and voters are used to him, but we don't have that same privilege with the mayor."
In his speech to the club that night, Sachs took Schaefer to task for engaging in debate, as the candidates for other offices such as attorney general and Senate have.
"I don't want this evening to myself," Sachs said. "I don't want to just make a speech . . . . I want very much to be measured alongside Mayor Schaefer. Only the candidates for the highest and most important office in Maryland have not met" to debate.
Were Schaefer an incumbent governor with a record in statewide office, the situation might be different, Sachs said. But, he added, "I'm not running against an incumbent governor, though sometimes Schaefer acts like one. I'm running against a guy who is asking for a promotion."
In the time-honored tradition of front-runners everywhere, Schaefer is anxious to keep this gubernatorial campaign season as brief as possible. Conventional political wisdom holds that a candidate's standing tends to decline once he or she formally enters a race, and that is probably true for Schaefer, who now holds a commanding lead.
But if the Democratic Club of Wicomico County is an accurate measure, Schaefer's rose garden strategy is beginning to wear thin. Even though he will not officially announce his candidacy until sometime next month, Schaefer is finding it increasingly difficult to duck behind the obvious transparency that he is not a candidate for governor.
Two weeks ago, the Schaefer campaign orchestrated an extravaganza of statewide parties at which thousands of citizens rose up on cue and demanded he run for governor. Which is exactly what the folks at the Wicomico County Democratic Club were saying last week: Schaefer ought to be willing to really run.
And running, as Sachs says, means being "prepared to meet your opponent on the field of electoral battle."
But the Schaefer campaign organization appears in no hurry. Responds campaign manager Mark Wasserman: "On any given night in the state of Maryland there are innumerable events. We'll follow our course and select our events in our own way. We encourage the attorney general to do the same."
And what about a real debate between Sachs and Schaefer? "We really haven't focused on it as yet," Wasserman said.
Sachs believes, however, that the voters will eventually force Schaefer to focus on it.
"He cannot avoid the increased pressure to meet me," Sachs said. "The public will turn on him if he tries it."