She once bragged about hiring people who speak "Hispanish." She raved about how the Ravens had scored a dramatic "football." And her public remarks rarely unfold without at least one or two awkward pauses or stammers that can leave an audience squirming.
For Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, impromptu public speaking and media interviews are often an adventure. And while Townsend is a clear early front-runner in next year's gubernatorial race, many Maryland political observers wonder whether her recurring difficulties in speaking without a script could cause her significant problems during the campaign.
"She is not a powerful speaker," said Richard E. Vatz, a professor of rhetoric at Towson University and a close observer of local politics. He likened Townsend's speaking ability to that of former President Gerald R. Ford, who "could get all balled up syntactically."
Critics, both Republican and Democratic, see opportunity in Townsend's occasional lapses and hope they can draw her into situations where she will have to ad lib and, they suspect, mishandle hostile questions.
Some GOP lawmakers in Annapolis stepped up the effort yesterday, accusing Townsend of ducking tough questions at a recent legislative hearing.
Vatz and others see problems ahead if Townsend's awkwardness overshadows the substance of her campaign messages.
"If she seems to be out of her element in appearance after appearance, it could build on itself and become the dominant perception," Vatz said. "People are beginning to wonder if there is a `there' there."
Townsend brushed off questions yesterday about her more publicized verbal gaffes.
"I say, `I answer questions,' " Townsend said. "I think it's important we have a good discussion on the issues. And I am eager always to listen to what citizens want. I love to talk about issues."
Townsend, 49, has kept up an often frantic schedule of public speaking the past few years in an undeclared run for governor.
At times, she delivers speeches skillfully and easily handles questions from reporters and others.
At an appearance before the National Press Club in Washington last September, for example, Townsend gave a long speech almost flawlessly and seemed at ease during an extended question-and-answer session that touched on local and national issues, as well as her family history.
And even her critics would have to concede that she can charm small groups in almost any setting, with her warmth and easy laugh.
But there are the many occasions when her mind seems to move faster than her mouth - the result being a mangled phrase or word.
In December 1999, she said in a short television interview, "What we're doing, we're hiring people who speak Hispanish."
Last month, she stammered noticeably at a gathering of abortion-rights activists outside the State House.
"And we're going to per ... pro ... pra ... FIGHT for women's right to choose!" Townsend told the crowd.
Monday night, addressing a group of gay-rights supporters, she twice referred to the "statute" of Thurgood Marshall, referring to the statue of the former Supreme Court justice outside the State House.
Yesterday, she tried three times to spit out the phrase "without whose help" as she saluted supporters for a housing initiative. She ended up with "without whom's help."
Townsend has worked hard to improve her speaking style during her six years in office, sometimes reviewing videotape and discussing her performances with aides. The consensus in Annapolis is that her speeches are generally much better.
Townsend's chief of staff, Alan H. Fleischmann, said Townsend would rather focus on issues, not her speaking style, but said she can be hard on herself.
"She's her own worst critic," Fleischmann said. "We do have people giving her constructive criticism always. There's no meeting or speech that Kathleen doesn't think could be better."
For now, Townsend enjoys a 50-point lead over her most likely Democratic rivals in next year's election and a comfortable margin over the Republican considered her toughest likely competition, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., according to a poll for The Sun released last month.
But even supporters allow that Townsend has not yet grown confident - is not fully battle-tested - when "ambushed" by the press and forced to extemporize.
Last month, Townsend became noticeably rattled when a reporter approached her unexpectedly as she stood in the State House rotunda, where Gov. Parris N. Glendening was conducting an interview nearby.
She began answering a question about prospects for the governor's gay-rights bill by identifying some of the measure's key legislative players. But then she stopped abruptly, apparently worried that she had erred.
"Is that on?" she asked, pointing to the reporter's tape recorder. She then apologized for ending the interview, saying she was jet-lagged because she had just returned from a trip to Israel.