HAVRE de GRACE — Harford County Executive David R. Craig describes himself as a moderate by temperament, but he is staking out positions that seem certain to appeal to the Republican party's hard-core conservative base as he seeks the 2014 nomination for governor.
In recent weeks, Craig has articulated policy stands that put him well to the conservative side of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in his 2002 race for governor — the only gubernatorial election the Maryland GOP has won in four decades. On the environment, social services and other issues, Craig has virtually dared his Republican rivals — Anne Arundel County Del. Ron George and Charles County business executive Charles Lollar — to try to outflank him on the right.
Among other things, Craig wants to scale back Maryland's role in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, give the state's business department a greater voice in environmental and health regulations, and impose limits on how long low-income people can collect food stamps and other benefits — even if it means refusing federal money.
Craig, 64, insists his positions represent the experiences of a lifetime as an educator and public official — not a strategy for winning the June 24 primary in an increasingly conservative party. "It's not like we're trying to move to the right or left. It's being correct," he said.
Political observers say Craig appears to be positioning himself to compete in a primary in which staunch conservatives are the most reliable voters. The challenge facing Craig — or whoever wins the primary — will be to appeal to a much different electorate in the general election. In Maryland, Democrats have a more than 2-to-1 advantage in voter registration over Republicans.
Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric at Towson University and a Craig supporter, said the numbers pose a dilemma for Republican gubernatorial candidates.
"The fact is, you often have to take positions in primaries that are not going to be positions that win you a general election," Vatz said. "That's the reason why it's very difficult for even an attractive [Republican] candidate to win in Maryland."
John T. Willis, executive in residence at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore, said making a post-primary pivot is more difficult now that recording devices are ubiquitous.
"Everything you say in the primary can be used against you for the general [election]. Everything is captured these days," Willis said. A candidate who tries to swing too far back to the center after a primary risks being labeled a flip-flopper, he added.
George said he's seen a rightward shift by Craig.
"I think he's been looking at the polls and he's taking different positions than what he has in the past," George said. The delegate said he has established a solid conservative record in his two terms in the legislature and sees no need to change his approach.
Lollar said he was not familiar with Craig's recent positions.
State GOP leaders have discussed allowing independents — roughly 17 percent of Maryland's 3.7 million voters — to cast ballots in the Republican primary, but that would require action at the party's convention next month. Such a proposal could face resistance from conservatives because it might favor candidates perceived as more moderate.
Craig has governed Harford since 2005, making him the longest-serving executive in the county's history. In 2010, he was re-elected with almost 80 percent of the vote.
The landslide victory came after Craig compiled a record of fiscal conservatism and tax-cutting combined with a genial, nonconfrontational style. "I'm considered a moderate because of my temperament," Craig said in an interview at his restored, circa-1839 home.
Michael Bennett, the Democratic mayor of Aberdeen, isn't backing Craig for governor but says it's been a pleasure to work with him as county executive.
"For the most part, I've seen that he's been a moderate — a kind of middle-of-the-road guy," said Bennett, who has been mayor for almost six years.
Such descriptions are not necessarily an asset in an increasingly conservative Republican Party.
Richard Cross, a former Ehrlich speechwriter turned blogger on Maryland Republican politics, said he has seen online attacks on Craig from the hard right labeling him a "RINO" — for Republican in Name Only, an epithet sometimes hurled at those who deviate from conservative orthodoxy.
Cross said that while the Harford executive has the image of a moderate, his positions on such issues as food stamps could reassure the conservative base.