November 03, 1986 12:00 PM

Republican Linda Chavez has the makings of a perfect U.S. Senate candidate—well tailored, well spoken and well connected, a Hispanic surname and modest beginnings adding a populist patina to her smooth-as-glass look.

Democrat Barbara Mikulski, on the other hand, often comes across as an anachronism: Frumpy, loud and sometimes rude, she champions all those big-hearted, big-spending social programs that went out with love beads.

Republicans reasoned that even in Maryland, a state that’s three-quarters Democratic, Chavez’ contemporary cool could trump Mikulski’s shopworn liberalism. So when the results of that state’s primaries pitted the women against each other for the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr., a delighted Republican national leadership put the race on its list of hopeful victories for retaining a Senate majority. GOP money poured into Chavez’ treasury. Party heavies flew to her side. The President invited her to the White House.

Rep. Michael Barnes, one of two seasoned male politicians Mikulski defeated in the primary, had warned Democratic voters that “the Republicans are salivating at the prospect of running against Barbara.” Now they’re getting that chance. Yet since the primary, Mikulski, 50—a five-term congresswoman who got her start fighting highway expansion in the East Baltimore neighborhood where her parents kept shop for 43 years—is proving to be anything but a pushover. She has a 22-point lead in the polls and Republicans can barely contain their frustration. “Chavez is a candidate who has everything,” says her media adviser Edward J. Rollins. “If she were running in California she would give Cranston a run for his money, and in Colorado she would surely be the winner.”

But Chavez is running in Maryland, where she has resided only since 1984, and many voters see her as a carpetbagger. The fact that she moved to the Republican Party even more recently than she did to the Maryland suburb of Bethesda does little to quell suspicions of opportunism. Chavez, 39, raised in a poor neighborhood of Albuquerque, N. Mex. by a Hispanic father and an Anglo mother, worked for the Democratic National Committee when she arrived in Washington in 1972 with her husband, Christopher Gersten. (Gersten is the political director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.) Her DNC work led to policy jobs with the Carter Administration and union groups; a series of articles lauding “traditional values” that she wrote for the American Federation of Teachers brought the conservatives courting. Appointed staff director of the Civil Rights Commission by Ronald Reagan in 1983, Chavez waged a high-profile campaign against affirmative action before moving on to a White House job in 1985. Thirty-three of her former co-workers at the commission publicly urged that Chavez be defeated as an enemy of civil rights, and even Hispanic groups in Maryland have split their endorsements.

Other aspects of Chavez’ new-found conservatism play poorly among voters. Her attacks on Mikulski over forced busing and cuts in defense spending have spurred little enthusiasm, while thinly veiled references to her opponent’s private life have backfired. Rumors about the unmarried Mikulski’s friendship with a radical Australian feminist whom she hired to work in her office are not new. After they surfaced in 1981, Mikulski was reelected with 74 percent of the vote.

“Chavez has a knack for picking issues that are either unfair or outdated or out of line,” writes popular Baltimore Sun columnist Michael Olesker. “Mikulski can be criticized for a lot of things—but when Chavez does it, it looks like an outsider suddenly arrived to pick on the hometown kid.”

Other Maryland Republicans are keeping their distance from Chavez. None of the party’s candidates for state office publicly supports her, and Senator Mathias himself seems to be ducking any outright endorsement.

Meanwhile Mikulski is playing the classic front-runner’s game of minimizing confrontations. Challenged to six debates by Chavez, she agreed to only two. At the podium, the formerly rotund, 4’11” Mikulski, slimmed down to 125 for the campaign and sporting a new Ultrasuede suit, kept her tone modulated and her manner pleasant. “She wasn’t as feisty as I expected,” Chavez complained to the press.

And that is what bothers the Chavez camp: Mikulski has gone to work on her rough edges, refusing to play true to dumpy, combative type. (She’s even milked her makeover for ad copy: In one TV spot she quips, “I’m counting my calories…and I’m counting on you.”) Not content to be a front-runner on substance—with a solid legislative record that Chavez cannot match—Mikulski has engaged the issue of style as well, and the charges that she simply isn’t “senatorial.”

Given the deep reservoir of respect she appears to enjoy among Maryland voters, it’s likely that Mikulski could make it to the Senate in a rumpled pants suit. But becoming the first Democratic woman senator ever elected without benefit of family ties is a true national milestone, and she’s chosen to dress for the occasion. As one Chavez aide noted with dismay after the television debate, “She’s even wearing pearls.”

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