Townsend now more vulnerable to O'Malley bid

October 14, 2001|By C. Fraser Smith

PITY MARTIN O'Malley.

The poor man's barely into office when suddenly he's whipsawed by frightening, even if flattering, choices:

Some say he's Baltimore's indispensable man, a dynamic young mayor who can't be replaced.

But other voices - maybe including his own - say the state needs him even more than its poorest city. They're urging him to recognize that, as governor, he'd be able to do even more for his city.

Some were predicting months ago that he'd run for governor in 2002, and pressure to take that course grew when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York.

The mayor's quite appropriate and very visible concerns about preparing Baltimore for an uncertain future lead to more talk of a run for governor.

Extraordinary times demand extraordinary leadership - and these are times that could upset every prediction about the politics of 2002. When the towers fell, the leadership bar went up.

Of course, even in our newly vulnerable world, political realities remain. A candidate for governor needs name recognition, star quality, fund-raising ability, backing from important voting blocks and a record, among other things. No out for Mr. O'Malley here. He brings that whole package and more: an aura of rising confidence and control.

Until now, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend had many of the assets in her own political lock box. If she was missing any, she had lift from the Kennedy name.

Her strengths have narrowed the field. Perhaps only two real challengers remain: Mr. O'Malley and Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich of the 2nd District, the leading Republican.

Mr. Ehrlich's chances are slim. He's young and dynamic, but advocates overstate his potential and look beyond his vulnerabilities.

As a Republican foot soldier in the Gingrich revolution of the mid-1990s, he would face a withering ad campaign in this still-liberal state. A Democratic governor with a low rating on the charisma scale, Parris N. Glendening, easily defeated the GOP challenger in 1998, and George W. Bush lost to Al Gore here: not a record to swell the collective Republican heart.

Black voters give Democrats a nearly insurmountable head start, going against Republicans by 9-to-1 in recent years. Unless jolted in another direction, they will do so again for Ms. Townsend.

Thus Mr. O'Malley's attraction for those who would defeat Ms. Townsend. He showed he could win black votes when he got more than 50 percent of the total against two admittedly weak black opponents in the mayoral election of 1999. He may have been green and impetuous, but he won because he was decisive, a risk taker - and because he saw that crime was a transcendent issue.

People felt vulnerable in their own neighborhoods, on their front porches - feared for the safety of their children, wondered about the future of their city. Does anything in that chemistry speak of our current mood?

A GOP analyst observed last week that Mr. O'Malley could "make the race about him, about his record." Everyone else who might run has waited for Ms. Townsend to make a devastating mistake. She's seemed immune to them. Her standing seems likely to continue, absent a strong challenger whose image could compete with hers.

Mr. O'Malley gets asked for his autograph, a reflection at first of his fame as a guitar player in a local Irish band. His stage presence has to be the envy of every politician who sees it.

He's the only one in the potential field who would need to guard against overconfidence - some would say arrogance. He's been intemperate on occasion, though even those slips have tended to make him look strong.

Like every political leader, he knows that moments of crisis are also opportunities to look and be decisive. When a CSX Corp. train caught fire and began to leak noxious chemicals in a Baltimore railroad tunnel, the take-charge mayor appeared on television often, assuring the city and the state that matters were well in hand - his.

He's had that same opportunity in the aftermath of terrorism, speaking for other mayors as they try to prepare for new attacks. He's been before Congress, on CNN and Dateline NBC, talking about "hard targets" and preparedness.

Before Sept. 11, Ms. Townsend might have won easily despite misgivings about her readiness. A Prince Georges Democrat who will support her acknowledged recently that, of course, she doesn't have a "command presence." Now that deficiency could look like an unaffordable luxury.

The questions will become sharper if she finds herself running against a man who looks more like Colin Powell every day.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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