Townsend hurt by O'Malley bid

May 17, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

BETTER PUT a hold on those coronation plans. The Kennedy family's brightest Maryland star may not have a lock on the governor's mansion after all.

Indeed, the latest polling numbers suggest that by the time the 2002 gubernatorial campaign truly heats up in 15 months, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend may no longer be the front-runner.

There's a new star in the local political sky -- Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

This week's Gonzales/Arscott poll confirms a trend that has been obvious for months: Mr. O'Malley has captured the imagination of most voters in the Baltimore region. If he can continue to revive Baltimore, he may be in position to write his own ticket for higher elective office.

Here's what pollsters Patrick E. Gonzales and Carol A. Arscott found in their sampling:

In a five-way field, Ms. Townsend easily beats all comers.

But in a two-way race, she barely nips Mr. O'Malley, 47-40 percent, with a 4.5 percent margin of error.

What's so amazing is that Mr. O'Malley starts off at such a disadvantage, yet performs so well.

While Ms. Townsend is known by nearly everyone -- a 92 percent recognition factor, Mr. O'Malley is unknown to one-third of the voters.

What happens when weeks of heavy advertising and media attention give Mr. O'Malley as much recognition statewide as the lieutenant governor?

That's especially important in the Washington suburbs, where Mr. O'Malley has yet to make an impression. Yet he's a child of Montgomery County and lived there till he went off to law school in Baltimore. His parents have strong Montgomery ties. When word gets out of his native roots, it could make a difference.

He could also benefit once Ms. Townsend's free ride comes to an end and she has to defend the Glendening administration for unpopular positions.

For instance, her administration is vulnerable on transportation issues, such as killing the Intercounty Connector and other major highway expansion plans in Montgomery -- the state's most congested region.

Her administration also could take the heat for ignoring the growing -- and enormously expensive -- special-education crisis in local schools and failing to give schools new financial aid recommended by a state commission.

Then there's the troubled Juvenile Justice Department, one of the few areas in which Ms. Townsend ostensibly has been put in charge. It could prove tough, in the midst of an intense campaign, to effectively refute criticism.

And don't forget Mr. O'Malley's charisma on the campaign trail. He's a born showman, a seasoned campaign organizer and a superb strategist. He'll have no trouble raising the millions needed for a brief summer-long crusade.

Besides, he's in the Baltimore media every day. Once he starts touring the state, making policy speeches in Rockville and Landover and Hagerstown and Salisbury, he'll be the focus of state media attention, too.

His good looks, strength as a speaker and likable personality make him a celebrity politician.

Ms. Townsend's strategy has been to convince everyone that her election as governor is inevitable. Her wide name recognition made her the strong, early favorite.

But there were warning signs in February that an O'Malley candidacy could change things.

A private sampling by a well-known national pollster showed Mr. O'Malley within 22 points of Ms. Townsend in a four-way race. But when the question became which candidate would be a better leader for the state, her lead shrank to just 11 points.

Now the Gonzales/Arscott poll confirms an upward O'Malley trend -- even though he's many months away from deciding if he'll even run for governor. Meanwhile, Ms. Townsend has devoted virtually every day to politicking.

In the end, her years of stumping the state could prove fruitless.

Charisma wins political races. If Mr. O'Malley eventually runs against Ms. Townsend, he could capture the Maryland public's imagination. He did it in Baltimore two years ago with a brilliantly focused and executed campaign. The latest poll numbers suggest he's in an even stronger position to succeed next year.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.