Senate race in Maryland on political front burner. Maryland's US Senate race is one of several contests the Monitor will report on this fall as Democrats and Republicans tussle for control of Congress. Coverage will include analysis of the Senate race in Florida to show how a campaign works. Local issues of import and gubernatorial races will also get close attention.

The expected Linda Chavez-Barbara Mikulski race for United States senator in Maryland this fall would not be the first such contest between two women. But it almost certainly would be the noisiest.

When Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine politely turned aside a challenge by Democrat Lucia Cormier in 1960, the campaign was called ``ladylike.''

No one expects either Ms. Chavez or Ms. Mikulski to don kid gloves if both win their party primaries Sept. 9, as widely expected.

Democrat Mikulski faces the strongest primary challenge in the scramble to succeed retiring Republican US Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. But recent polls show her almost 20 points ahead of both US. Rep. Michael D. Barnes and Gov. Harry Hughes.

None of the nine challengers to Chavez on the GOP senatorial ballot are seen as likely to deprive her of the nomination.

``It's going to be a tough campaign,'' predicts Maryland Democratic Congressman Steny H. Hoyer. ``The Republicans can score points against Mikulski, . . . but Linda Chavez is going to get roughed up herself.''

When Senator Mathias first announced his retirement, many Republicans felt that his seat would almost certainly be lost to the Democrats. But the prospect of a Chavez-Mikulski race has already begun to attract money and media from around the country.

Despite the steep odds Chavez, formerly director of public liaison in the Reagan White House, faces against the better-known Mikulski, national Republican leaders are laying plans to divert funds into her campaign effort.

Mikulski and Chavez have little more in common than their gender, reputations for tenacity, and ethnic, working-class roots.

The granddaughter of a Polish immigrant and daughter of a neighborhood grocer, Mikulski has represented the ethnic Baltimore wards she grew up in since 1976 as an unabashed populist. Quick-witted and quick-tempered, she revels in a blustery, stentorian style accentuated by her stocky 4-foot, 11-inch build.

A stable of celebrities and national feminist leaders have been backing Mikulski's bid.

Democratic strategists, while expressing the conviction that she will easily prevail over her Republican challenger, are quietly girding themselves for broadsides against their candidate's personal style.

``That's a briar patch we're looking forward to falling into,'' says Mikulski campaign pollster Harrison Hickman. ``At a time when most politicians are a 42 regular in a blue suit with a red tie, Barbara stands alone.''

``I'm that outspoken lady running for the United States Senate,'' Mikulski tells voters. But she is also reputed to be difficult to work with, and over the years there have been a high number of resignations from her Capitol Hill staff.

Mikulski has built a national reputation as an ardent feminist. She was a high-profile supporter of the 1980 Mondale-Ferraro presidential ticket.

``I'm the 20-year overnight success,'' jokes Mikulski, who became a local celebrity during years as a social worker and a politician, including a stint on the Baltimore City Council. In 1974 she first tried for the US Senate, challenging Mr. Mathias.

Chavez, a Hispanic-American born in New Mexico, has moved progressively eastward geographically and rightward politically.

Originally a Democrat, she worked for a labor union and served in President Jimmy Carter's administration.

In 1981 Chavez joined the Reagan administration, and two years ago she moved to Maryland.

Chavez, who registered as a Republican only last year, first became a controversial figure while staff director of the US Commission on Civil Rights when she opposed such affirmative-action initiatives as racial hiring goals and quotas.

Now, Chavez says she plans to cast the Senate race as a referendum on the policies of the Reagan administration. She says President Reagan will stump for her in the state this fall.

Poised, cool, and articulate, Chavez displayed all three qualities last month when she embarrassed her better-known Democratic rivals by outscoring them on a surprise current-affairs quiz sprung by a local TV station. Increased media attention on Chavez followed that performance.

``I don't think there could be a clearer difference than that between Mikulski and [me],'' Chavez remarked of her TV quiz triumph.

Even conservative commentators say Chavez's best hope lies in underscoring the differences between the two candidates, with particular emphasis on her experience as a wife and mother of three.

``Chavez can't win the race, but Mikulski can lose it,'' says American Enterprise Institute analyst William Schneider.

Few expected that the Mathias retirement would result in such a contest, particularly since the Democrats fielded several strong candidates.

Congressman Barnes had cultivated a national reputation as a rising star in the House of Representatives for leading the opposition to the Reagan administration's Central American policy.

Barnes began laying the groundwork for a Senate bid even before Senator Mathias announced his retirement.

Governor Hughes, whose two-term, scandal-free administration stood in stark contrast to the tainted tenures of predecessors Spiro Agnew and Marvin Mandel, was considered an early front-runner in the Senate race.

Nearly a dozen candidates sprouted from the Republican ranks, all of them given virtually no chance of beating the Democrats.

Compounding their difficulties is the fact that registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in Maryland by 2 to 1. The state has one of the heaviest Democratic registrations in the nation.

Chavez's prospects for capturing the GOP nomination surged in July when Richard Sullivan, a former chief executive of EASCO Corporation, dropped out of the Republican race and offered to help Chavez build ties with the Baltimore business community, where she had few contacts.

At the same time, Barnes has been unable to crack the Mikulski strongholds in Baltimore, where nearly half the state's Democratic primary voters live.

He has spent much of his time and campaign money trying to raise his name recognition outside the Washington suburbs that make up his congressional district.

Barnes insists that a higher than predicted turnout in his district, as well as last-minute support from the state's black voters, can turn the tide for him.

``A lot of Barbara's support is soft as mush,'' he says.

Hughes is still suffering from the political fallout of the state's savings and loan crisis, which affected nearly as million depositors. Most people have gotten their money back, but the perception remains that he did not exercise as much authority as he might have during the crisis. His campaign is perilously short of funds.

``But for S&Ls, Harry would be the front-runner,'' says Congressman Hoyer, a Hughes supporter.

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