Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening has hit 56 percent in his job approval rating, according to new poll results a pollster called "impressive."

The poll, conducted Jan. 7 to 11, questioned 826 voters who said they voted regularly in state elections. It has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points and was conducted by Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications Inc.

Thirty-four percent of voters disapproved of Glendening's performance, and 10 percent had no answer.

"Considering the depths to which he's been, it's a pretty remarkable recovery," pollster Carol Arscott said.

Glendening (D) was first elected by a margin of fewer than 6,000 votes in 1994 and had a stormy first term, his popularity dipping to 18 percent at one juncture. But his fortunes improved, and he won a tough reelection battle in 1998.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's fortunes are even higher--62 percent approve of her job performance and only 22 percent disapprove. Sixteen percent had no answer.

Townsend (D) is running hard for governor in 2002, and "it's going to be pretty hard to deny her the nomination when she starts with numbers like that," Arscott said, noting that her negatives are "minuscule."

The poll found that education (26 percent) and crime (22 percent) rate as voters' top concerns as the General Assembly begins its annual session in Annapolis. Next on the list was state spending and taxes (11 percent), roads and traffic (8 percent), the environment (5 percent), growth and development (5 percent) and health care (4 percent).

Arscott said the good economic times probably are responsible for the good fortunes of Glendening and Townsend, as well as the reason that people listed education and crime as their top priorities. "If you're not worrying about your next paycheck, you have opportunity to think about other issues," she said.

On the presidential front, the poll found that Vice President Gore leads the Democratic field in Maryland. Going into the March 7 primary, he has 45 percent of the vote, and former U.S. senator Bill Bradley has 37 percent. Eighteen percent are undecided.

Among Republicans, Texas Gov. George W. Bush has the support of 52 percent of GOP primary voters. Arizona Sen. John McCain has 23 percent, former Maryland senatorial candidate Alan Keyes has 6 percent, publisher Steve Forbes has 3 percent, Gary Bauer has 2 percent and Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch has 1 percent. The remaining 13 percent are undecided.

The presidential preference portion of the poll was of a smaller sample than the statewide section. It included 368 likely Democratic voters with a margin of error of 5 percentage points and 321 likely Republican voters with a margin of error of 6 percentage points.

Bradley Rallies by Phone

It appears that Marylanders might have to settle for a little less than the full attention of the nation's presidential contenders this year, given that the state's primary falls on the same date, March 7, as the primaries of mighty California and other states.

So it was with little luster that Democratic contender Bill Bradley swung by Annapolis to talk with his supporters in the State House last week. Didn't hear about it? That's because he made his "appearence" via speakerphone.

In a small press event in the House Appropriations Committee room, Del. Howard P. Rawlings (Baltimore) and Baltimore County Executive C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, both Democrats, gathered supporters from around the state for a rally on Bradley's behalf.

During his short speech, Bradley told them he "feels really good" about his chances in Maryland, to which the gathered crowd offered a brief round of applause. "I just wanted to call in today and say, 'Onward.' "

Throughout, the politicians leaned over the speaker, offering Bradley promises of support.

"I wish you were here," Rawlings told the senator, who was stumping in New Hampshire. "You would see the diversity of this group that's going to the convention to support you."

When the line went dead, they continued the rally for another 15 minutes.

GOP Chairman May Quit

Maryland GOP Chairman Richard D. Bennett appears to be contemplating stepping down to reduce his activities with the party and devote more time to practicing law.

"I'm weighing a few things," was all Bennett would say in an interview last week. "I have an increasingly busy law practice." With law offices in Baltimore and Washington and his chairman's duties taking him to Annapolis, Bennett said he is spending a lot of time on the road. "It gets a little crazy after a while."

Bennett, a former U.S. attorney, heads the white-collar crime section at the statewide firm of Miles and Stockbridge. He was the party's candidate for lieutenant governor on the ticket with Ellen R. Sauerbrey in 1998.

He took over the chairmanship after that election and at one time appeared to be considering a gubernatorial bid himself. Associates say that Bennett probably won't run, though.

He is popular with moderates in the party for his effort to move the state GOP to the middle to appeal to Maryland's traditionally Democratic constituency, but conservatives in the party are wary of him.

Bennett pushed a successful but fractious effort to open the GOP presidential primary March 7 to independents in hopes of attracting moderate voters.

More recently, he has been under fire from some party regulars for representing Del. Tony E. Fulton (D-Baltimore), who has been indicted with Annapolis lobbyist Gerard E. Evans on charges of conspiring to defraud the lobbyist's clients. Many in the party were angry that Bennett is representing the Democrat, calling it a conflict in his duties as the GOP chairman. Bennett said he has no conflict.

"It's not just the Fulton matter" that is causing him to consider more balance between his political duties and his legal career, Bennett said.

State Senators Trade Jobs

The music started again, briefly, in the Maryland General Assembly's game of musical senators.

Just before the legislative session began, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's, Calvert) sent Sen. John J. Hafer (R-Allegany) from the Finance Committee to Budget and Taxation to replace the seat that Republicans lost when Sen. Robert R. Neall (D-Anne Arundel) switched parties.

Last week, before any of the committees had convened, Miller sent Hafer back to Finance, in exchange for Minority Leader Martin G. Madden (R-Howard).