THE DEMOCRATIC tide that swept over Maryland Nov. 7 may have submerged Republican hopes for regaining the governorship in two years, but it didn't totally clarify who's likely to succeed Parris N. Glendening in 2002.
While Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend remains the early front-runner, racing aficionados know that getting off to a fast start, with a long lead, can prove tiring and eventually debilitating.
Ms. Townsend has been campaigning for the governorship for two years. She wisely used the presidential race to engage in the kind of retail politics statewide that can pay off handsomely.
But she lacks a geographic base: She's never held local office. Unions, liberals and minority groups gravitate toward her -- attracted by the Kennedy mystique.
Critics point out that Ms. Townsend has yet to be tested on issues. When her much-heralded juvenile boot camps blew up on her, the lieutenant governor developed a fortress mentality. There could be more embarrassing episodes by 2002. Will she duck these, too?
Advocacy groups are leery about the depth of commitment to juvenile reforms by the Glendening-Townsend team. This could be a campaign issue in 2002.
So could the state's overwhelmed and understaffed parole division. It is trying to explain why someone who violated parole 71 times (the alleged killer of State Police Cpl. Edward M. Toatley) was out on the streets.
Ms. Townsend has had oversight of this troubled program for six years. She'll have to explain why the problem hasn't been fixed.
She could face a number of potential Democratic challengers, though probably not Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. He's been wounded by defeat of a local condemnation law, isn't known statewide and faces enormous odds in resurrecting his gubernatorial ambitions.
A bigger threat comes from the Washington suburbs. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan would love to run for governor if he sees a way to win. The same holds for Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry.
This could deprive Ms. Townsend of sorely needed votes in the state's two biggest Democratic counties.
But what could prove of paramount concern to Townsend backers would be a gubernatorial race by Baltimore's new heartthrob, Mayor Martin O'Malley, combined with a challenge from the Washington suburbs.
Such a lineup might toss the race into the undecided column, erasing much of Ms. Townsend's early advantage.
Mr. O'Malley could mesmerize state Democrats with his youthful personality, good looks and drive. He's the Ricky Martin of Baltimore politics, a dynamic, vocal leader of a reviving city and an Irish rock band. Ms. Townsend has the family connections, but Mr. O'Malley has the charisma.
Imagine in two years: the mayor running for governor just as Baltimore is acclaimed "the miracle on the Chesapeake." City schools are improving, crime is still dropping, revived neighborhoods are proving popular and businesses are scrambling to grab harbor-area sites.
Also imagine: Candidate O'Malley heaping scorn on Ms. Townsend's failure to direct more money into drug treatment and crime-prevention, into school classrooms, into transportation and into health care programs.
Much as George W. Bush stressed in the recent presidential campaign, Mr. O'Malley will be able to say, "They've had eight years to find solutions, and they've failed to deliver."
His personal magnetism and a success story in Baltimore could prove popular in nearby suburbs. Meanwhile, his Montgomery County connections -- he grew up there, and his dad nearly became state's attorney there two years ago -- give him a boost.
The mayor's success in bridging the racial divide could help him with minorities, too. He's perfect for an ad campaign that strikes the theme of bringing unity, energy and new ideas to a tired regime.
Another millstone for Ms. Townsend could be her linkage to Governor Glendening. He's not popular. Yet Ms. Townsend must defend all of his actions. And she must rebut charges that 16 years of Glendening-Townsend rule is just too much.
The mayor and lieutenant governor already eye one another suspiciously. They know they may be on a collision course one day.
Recently, the mayor criticized a Sun editorial that referred to his "tenuous relationship" with Mr. Glendening and Ms. Townsend. "What relationship?" he asked. "We don't have any."
That chilly response may signal that Mr. O'Malley already is looking at a 2002 challenge. He is a bright, ambitious man and a superb organizer of political campaigns.
An added plus: He doesn't have to give up his job as mayor to run for governor in 2002. It's a free shot. Even if he lost, he'd gain broad exposure and develop contacts for a later run for U.S. Senate.
It's a win-win proposition for Mr. O'Malley.
He could be Ms. Townsend's worst nightmare.
Mea culpa: As several readers pointed out, last week's column erroneously placed the Spiro Agnew-George Mahoney race for Maryland governor in 1968. It happened in 1966, with Agnew's victory propelling him into the national spotlight just two years later.
Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.