Townsend's candidacy still shines

Results: But a few dark clouds may be on the Democrat's horizon as her lead slips along with public opinion.

The Maryland Poll

January 11, 2002|By David Nitkin and Sarah Koenig | David Nitkin and Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend would handily defeat U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in a contest for Maryland governor, but her advantage is slipping as growing numbers of voters view her negatively, according to a new poll for The Sun.

The Maryland Poll shows that Townsend, a Democrat, would beat Republican Ehrlich by a healthy 15 percentage points if the election were held today, with 14 percent undecided.

But in a development certain to trouble her backers, Townsend's support in that match decreased by 6 percentage points during the past year, and her favorable ratings declined even more.

Townsend's drop parallels an erosion of good will for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, whose job performance rating is the lowest since The Sun began tracking it four years ago.

In one of the poll's most striking results, Republican leaders are emerging as an increasingly attractive alternative as Townsend and Glendening slide in the eyes of the state's voters and the Bush administration boasts unprecedented support.

Asked which party is better able to handle the most critical issues facing the state, Marylanders were just as likely to express confidence in Republicans as Democrats - despite Democrats' nearly 2-1 edge in voter registration.

In addition to topping Ehrlich, Townsend would beat Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley by 22 percentage points in a potential Democratic primary, with 18 percent undecided. But Marylanders - particularly those in Baltimore - say they like O'Malley where he is: More voters want to see him finish his mayoral term than run for governor.

In a hypothetical matchup of Baltimore-region heavyweights, O'Malley would beat Ehrlich in a gubernatorial contest by 20 points, with 26 percent undecided. The mayor even trumps Ehrlich in the congressman's Baltimore County base, and the poll shows O'Malley is better-known statewide.

Pollster Keith Haller, president of Bethesda-based Potomac Inc., which conducted the survey, said Townsend should be pleased with her position but aware of potential trouble ahead.

"There is bright sun shining on her candidacy today, but there are a few dark clouds on the horizon which should be taken seriously by her handlers," Haller said.

"Her negatives have risen by 10 points in one year, despite very favorable and extensive media coverage," he said. "In the past, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has not been tarnished one iota by actions or issues that have impacted Glendening personally or the administration.

"But that time may be over. She'll have to be more vigilant about separating herself from negative influences."

Glendening's approval drop, Haller and others say, is attributable in part to recent publicity over his aborted candidacy for the $345,000-a-year position of state university system chancellor.

Ethics experts questioned the propriety of the governor seeking a job from the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents after appointing every member of that board. The governor was forced to announce last month that he would not seek the job.

"The heavy coverage, during November and December, led to his numbers fluctuating," said John Bambacus, head of the political science department at Frostburg State University. "I just didn't anticipate the firestorm that took place. I thought it would be a one- or two-day story. It obviously had legs, for legitimate reasons."

The governor also may have alienated some voters through a legislative redistricting proposal that would remove representation from the Baltimore region.

Edna Silva, 81, of Monkton, a retired benefits counselor for the Veterans Administration, has been a loyal Democrat and voted for Glendening twice. But he and Townsend have disappointed her. She hasn't noticed the fruits of their administration, she said, and she's annoyed that Glendening sought the chancellor's position.

As for Townsend, "I resent that she didn't take care of that school with troubled kids in it," she said, referring to guard-on-inmate violence at some state "boot camps" for youth offenders - programs for which she claimed responsibility.

"Before I always wanted to vote Democrat, but now I'd vote Republican," Silva said, in large part because of how impressed she has been with Bush's performance.

Glendening said yesterday that he's not alarmed by the recent drop in his voter approval. At one point during his first term - after being battered by a pension scandal in Prince George's County where he had been county executive - he was considered the most unpopular governor in the country.

"We've been fighting the controversial battles for what matters for Marylanders. When you do that, you always get your ups and downs and I've had them in my career," the governor said through a spokesman. "But what matters in the end is that you do the right thing. And we're doing that."

Although still 11 months away, the 2002 governor's race is slowly coming into focus even without formally announced candidates.

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