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Republican primary contest puts Mooney in catbird seat

November 23, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

Those Washington County residents who miss the representation of state Sen. Alex Mooney may have him back in the not-too-distant future, as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Mooney, should he choose this route, seems the odds-on favorite to inherit the seat of Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, who once joked that he had "built-in term limits" due to his advanced age.

Recent events in the Republican party have broken in such fashion that probably even Mooney himself views them as too good to be true.

As a 10-year veteran of the House and a darling of the party, Bartlett had every reason to believe he would be unopposed or have only token opposition in the March primary. This would have left him in the uncompromised position of kingmaker in selecting his eventual successor - presumably his son Joe, currently a Maryland state delegate.

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But the smooth paradigm took a jolt when tough Frederick prosecutor Scott Rolle challenged Bartlett, mystifying those in the party who weren't outright maddened.

Among those who were borderline furious was Gov. Robert Ehrlich. The last thing the governor wanted to see was a high-profile Republican brawl. Not only is this bad for party unity, it means Bartlett will be forced to spend his considerable campaign warchest on his own primary fight, rather than being able to generously pass the cash around to other Republicans gearing up for the general election.

Despite entering as a decided underdog, Rolle appears to have every intention of turning the primary into a horserace. He's scoured the country, bringing in outside talent to handle the campaign and raise money.

Party officials are bracing (and wincing) for a campaign that could be tough and personal. One said he's "sick" to think that Rolle may play the age card against Bartlett.

He may also, and we hope you're sitting down for this one, try to paint Bartlett as too liberal for the district based on the congressman's opposition to the death penalty (for religious reasons) and the Patriot Act (presumably for fears of government-intrusion reasons).

But if he pursues these pegs, Rolle will be on dangerous ground. To the party, Bartlett is not old, he's grandfatherly. And in politics, a man's faith has always stood as a shield for views that are not universally in line with his constituency. Finally, true conservatives capable of reading the fine print have every right to be highly dubious of the Patriot Act, which allows government the freedom to snoop in our most personal affairs.

Where does that leave Rolle? Probably the only issue which can provide any form of traction is the one of Bartlett's effectiveness, or lack thereof. Even with a Republican majority in Congress, Western Maryland has received precious little clout for its vote.

Not only that, Bartlett is capable of some rather impressive foul-ups, most recently at the old Fort Ritchie Army base, where he's on the verge of driving out the only business that's successfully located there.

But this dog will hunt only among some elements of the party that are keenly attuned to government proceedings. To rank-and-file voters, it will only lie down and scratch fleas.

Frederick could be a battleground, but GOP chairs in the counties to the west are reporting back to headquarters that no cracks are showing among those loyal to Bartlett.

Knowing that the seat will be open in the relatively near future, it might be somewhat understandable that Rolle wants to get his name out there in a campaign, even if his chances of winning are minimal.

But the aggressive challenge may have triggered an unforeseen challenge. Reacting to Rolle's investment in talent, Bartlett went out and recruited the best GOP fund-raiser in the state, the aforementioned Alex Mooney. Over his time in office, if Mooney had raised half as much money for the people of his district as he had for himself, he might be considered the best state lawmaker in the history of the nation. But that aside, give the man his due. He's a campaign fund-raising machine.

Bartlett is a formidable name; Bartlett with Mooneynomics behind him is, in my view, unbeatable.

And for Mooney, the appointment is an unbelievable plum. At one time, Mooney was considered a potential threat to Bartlett - wanting to move up, some thought he might have become impatient and offered Bartlett a primary challenge of his own.

Now, he's a Bartlett ally, his horse comfortably outside the rail in fine position to make his move. Obviously, this leaves young Joe Bartlett falling fast (unless, of course, Mooney has his sights on bigger game, like the U.S. Senate).

Joe Bartlett's biggest attribute is also his biggest liability - he's a nice kid. At this point he may not be seasoned enough, driven enough, or enough of a heavyweight to enter the national scene.

Whether he still views Joe as his heir apparent or not, the elder Bartlett was forced by Rolle to hand the whip to Mooney. Plenty of people will be watching over the next couple of years to see how he chooses to use it.

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