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Bartlett scaring off challengers

January 05, 1998

Bartlett scaring off challengers

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

A series of miscues and controversial comments by U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett shortly after taking office in 1993 had Western Maryland pols lining up to take a shot at him.

Several well-known politicians - including at least four fellow Republicans - publicly weighed bids.

Two elections later, however, Bartlett has settled in and the opposite is now true: The 6th District's best-known Democrats are passing on a chance to challenge him. Less than a year before the November election, only one Democrat has announced intentions to run for the seat.

That Democrat, little-known Tim D. McCown, has never run for elective office. Even McCown, who acknowledged he originally planned to run for state delegate, said he was surprised no one else had stepped forward.

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"I figured I'd be writing (letters) in support of a better-known candidate," McCown said.

It used to be a different story. After storming onto the scene in 1992, Bartlett battled a number of highly publicized negative stories his first few months in office.

He drew criticism when he questioned why so many scholarships were going to students with Asian and Middle Eastern names rather than "normal Americans." He later apologized for his "poorly chosen words."

Bartlett also replaced Timothy L. Woodford as top aide after allegations surfaced that Woodford put a staff member in a headlock and touched the collarbone of a female employee.

Bartlett attributes his early missteps to inexperience and uneasiness with the press.

"When you first start in this job, you're intimidated by the cameras and reporters," he said.

But as his comfort level has increased, his mistakes have decreased. And Bartlett said his expectations of the job have also grown more realistic.

Michael Towle, a political science professor at Mount St. Mary's College, said a centrist Democrat might be able to knock off Bartlett under the right circumstances.

"He's probably more conservative than the district, even though it's fairly conservative," Towle said. "But my guess is, this is not the year to do it."

The party of the president in his sixth year in office typically has trouble winning congressional elections, Towle said. And he said Bartlett would likely enjoy fund-raising advantages.

In addition, Towle said Bartlett has avoided the kinds of blunders that marked his first term and has softened his tone on divisive national issues.

Another reason Democrats may be looking past this year to the election in 2000 is that the 71-year-old lawmaker will be two years older and may decide to retire. Even if he does not retire, a strong presidential campaign from the party's nominee could pull a challenger past Bartlett, Towle said.

Republicans contend the weak response from Democrats indicates the district is happy with Bartlett's performance.

"Obviously, Congressman Bartlett is meeting the needs of his constituency," said Vikki Nelson, a member of the Washington County Republican Central Committee.

Nelson pointed to Bartlett's record on small business issues, which has drawn praise from several business advocacy organizations.

"Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, that's important," she said.

Still, Nelson said she figured the Democrats would try harder to recruit strong candidates.

"I thought the Democrats were loading their barrels," she said.

For Democrats, that adds up to what could be a disappointing election year.

"Obviously, the Democrats would like to get the seat back. We have a long history, in my lifetime, of having the 6th District represented by a Democrat," said Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany.

But Taylor acknowledged that time is running out for potential candidates.

"If there are going to be any big names surfacing, they're going to have to do it pretty quick," he said.

Boonsboro Mayor Charles F. "Skip" Kauffman Jr., who is active in the county Democratic Party, said he thinks many well-known Democrats are not interested in the seat this year.

"If no big names are going after his seat, that's an indication to me that Democrats don't want to take him on at this time," he said.

But Kauffman added that it is nothing to get overly concerned about.

"Everything's cyclical. Time means everything," he said. "I'm not going to worry about things I can't control."

For his part, Bartlett said he thinks he is strong politically because his views mesh with the residents of Western Maryland.

"I'm really one of the luckiest guys down there. I vote my conscience," he said.

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