Townsend looks willing and able to take next step Politics: A key factor in the recent Glendening win, the lieutenant governor could succeed her boss in 2002.

November 15, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith and William F. Zorzi Jr.

LT. GOV. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's post-election speech might go into the record books as the earliest announcement ever by a candidate for governor of Maryland.

Though she was ostensibly saying "thank you," many in the audience felt the unmistakable sweep and intonations, the careful base-touching, of a candidate on the make.

"I ask each of the citizens of Maryland - Democrats, Independents and Republicans - to join Governor [Parris N.] Glendening and me in our mission to prepare Maryland to meet the challenges of the new millennium," she said. "There is no vision too grand for Maryland. I Thank you, and God bless you."

Her remarks might have gone beyond the informal limits imposed upon lieutenant governors; she sounded at times as if she were already governor. In fact, she spoke markedly longer than Glendening.

Townsend might have been emboldened by a consensus that she had given Glendening a boost toward a second term - had given a bright, shining cast to his otherwise pallid profile.

She had been the star of her team's TV commercials, and she had bandaged a deep, self-inflicted political wound. Glendening had lectured President Clinton over the Lewinsky matter - only to find the president maintaining and expanding his strength among the core Democrats whom Glendening needed if he were to be re-elected.

Along with Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Townsend got Clinton to visit Maryland for a pep rally at a West Baltimore church. The visit helped Glendening in his victory over Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

Townsend played a key role in corralling both first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Al Gore as headliners for campaign fund-raisers. And she put the Kennedy network at Glendening's disposal, bringing in her mother, Ethel, and her uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, for campaign stops in the final weeks.

A political generation remains between now and 2002, but Townsend emerged from this year's race as the Democratic front-runner.

"It's obvious," said Larry S. Gibson, the Baltimore political strategist.

"She's off and running," said Edgar P. Silver, the former circuit judge and political handicapper who says Townsend should be seen as the early favorite.

"She has the momentum," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, the polling firm in Bethesda. "She has the high profile. She's in office, so she can take advantage of the enormous powers of an incumbent."

Polling conducted in September showed Townsend with 88 percent name recognition and a ratio of positive to negative voter impressions that many politicians would love to have. Some 54 percent of Haller's statewide survey had a favorable view of her, while 18 percent did not. The rest were undecided or unsure. Her standing has likely gone up since then.

In the state's Democratic heartland - Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties - her "favorables" were higher. Throughout the state during the election, voters often expressed themselves favorably toward her.

"They love her in Southern Maryland," said Marie Duffield, a converted Democrat who has run several campaigns in Charles County. Seven or eight hundred people turned out for a unity breakfast where she was the star attraction, Duffield said.

"She has spent a considerable amount of time here with her crime stuff - the 'hot spots' and other things," she said. "If she can [also focus on] education in the next four years, she's a shoo-in."

Any number of unforeseen obstacles could arise during the next four years. And, of course, other well-qualified Democrats - with deeper Maryland roots - want to be governor.

Perhaps first among these is Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, whose unrestrained toiling for the Democratic ticket endeared him to party activists statewide. Glendening's 63 percent margin in Montgomery was 4 points higher than his margin in 1994 - a critically strong showing in the state's most populous and politically active county.

Montgomery has become more urban, and for the first time, Democrats put more than 1,000 volunteers on the street on Election Day - not merely to baby sit the polling places but to go door to door in targeted precincts to pull out voters. It worked.

For Duncan politically, it was the best of both worlds. He worked furiously for the incumbent governor - who presumably will not ignore the executive of vote-rich Montgomery County during the next four years - while test-driving a campaign apparatus that would serve him well in 2002. The machinery in Duncan's powerful base is in place for a statewide run.

Unlike Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Duncan supported the governor throughout his county. Ruppersberger picked his spots in Baltimore County, offering much less visible backing in areas where he knew Glendening was weak - which could damage the prospects of the Baltimore County legislative team in Annapolis come January.

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