Maryland's Dark-Horse Candidate Gives Party Machines a Scare

Republican may ride a tax-cut pledge to the governor's office

THE Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland is leading in the polls by 7 to 14 percentage points, leading in fundraising by at least $4 million, and is spending the last days of his campaign on the phone raising more.

All this to run against a Republican opponent who had not been expected to win even in her own primary.

Welcome to politics 1994, where in an age of voter contempt, a dark horse can topple the mightiest of political foes.

``It's unfortunate we have to raise that much money,'' said Democrat Parris Glendening, after a press conference last week outside Baltimore's World Trade Center building. ``We're running an aggressive race against a gimmick and a little bit against a national tide.''

The ``gimmick'' is a pledge by GOP opponent Ellen Sauerbrey to cut state income taxes 24 percent over a four-year period - a tax-cutting strategy that propelled New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) to a surprise win in 1993 and soaring approval ratings in her first year in office.

``Even the conservative Wall Street Journal says these [tax cutting] policies are not working,'' says Mr. Glendening, who predicts a ``confident and comfortable win.''

``Marylanders are smarter than that,'' he added.

Last week, two senior officials in the failed primary campaign of the former GOP front runner, United States Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, joined Mr. Glendening to announce the formation for a ``Republicans for Glendening'' committee.

Ms. Sauerbrey, minority leader in the Maryland state legislature's House of Delegates, rode her tax pledge and zealous grass-roots support from a 3 percent showing in early polls to a stunning 52-38 rout of party-favorite Bentley in the primary.

``If the GOP nominee had offered a responsible platform, we wouldn't be here,'' said Bentley campaign manager Michael Kosmas. ``Our campaign didn't focus on the importance of the grass roots. It was a tactical mistake.''

Angry electorate

What Democrats fear is the groundswell of support Sauerbrey enjoyed during the primary from people not active in politics. Last week, volunteers filled the cramped basement of the GOP headquarters in suburban Rockville, Md., to hear Sauerbrey speak.

``This is the first time I've ever worked in a campaign,'' said Kathy Hargett, a retired IBM employee in a bumble-bee yellow campaign tee-shirt. ``Most of Ellen's helpers are volunteers. My husband says, `I support two women, my wife and Ellen Sauerbrey.'''

``My wife and I have our income on hold,'' said Malcolm Jensen, another first-time campaign worker supporting Sauerbrey. ``We've been regular voters, but never active.... I like her tax cut, not so that I can have more money but so that the state can be much more attractive to business, rather than repelling to people with high income who can locate where they choose.''

Sauerbrey campaign officials estimate that there were 8,000 unpaid volunteers statewide during the primary election, and ``substantially double'' that in the last days of the campaign.

The Whitman model

Candidate Sauerbrey welcomes comparisons to New Jersey Governor Whitman. ``Christine Whitman provided inspiration in that she was able to prove her ability to make reductions in taxes,'' she says in an interview. ``She personifies what I've always believed - that this is a message people wanted to hear.''

But Sauerbrey says she is being handicapped by her opponent's ability to raise money in the Democrat-controlled state.

Because Sauerbrey accepted public financing she is limited to spending $1 million in this race. Glendening is expected to spend $6 million, a record for a gubernatorial race in this state.

``I think it's obscene to spend that amount of money in a campaign in a small state like Maryland,'' she says.

A tax raise pushed through by outgoing governor William Schaefer (D) has angered voters and may aid Sauerbrey. The Democratic coalition that has held the statehouse has been built on majorities from Maryland's black and suburban Washington communities, but Sauerbrey believes her opponent is vulnerable in the suburbs.

``I'm spending a great deal of time in Montgomery County. We need to do well here,'' says Sauerbrey. ``Montgomery County voters are rightfully concerned about being the cash cow for the state of Maryland.''

Jim Gimpel, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, says Sauerbrey's showing so far has been impressive, but doubts she can carry the election.

``Sauerbrey's nomination was a surprise for Glendening. He was caught off guard,'' says ``She sounds a lot like Michigan Gov. John Engler (R), who pulled off an upset [in 1990] and has had some success in welfare reform. But Democrats have controlled the state house in Maryland for 26 years. I don't see voters quite unhappy enough to elect her.''

For their part, Sauerbrey volunteers are hoping for a blizzard on Nov. 8.

``We're praying for a monstrously bad snow day,'' said Mr. Jensen. ``We know Ellen supporters will crawl through a snow drift on hands and knees to get her elected.''

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