Gubernatorial race tightens, voter poll finds

Survey: As Townsend loses her big early lead over Ehrlich, the undecided 10 percent will be crucial in deciding the election.

The Maryland Poll

July 24, 2002|By David Nitkin and Howard Libit | David Nitkin and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

With barely 100 days until the November election, Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's lead over Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has shrunk to the narrowest of margins despite her early advantages in money, name recognition and party registration.

A poll conducted for The Sun shows Townsend leading Ehrlich 47 percent to 44 percent among likely voters, with 10 percent undecided. The slim gap represents a sharp slide for Townsend, who led Ehrlich by 15 points in a hypothetical matchup for governor in January, before the Timonium Republican announced his candidacy.

It also coincides with a significant change in how voters perceive her: nearly twice as many Marylanders say they have an unfavorable impression of the lieutenant governor now as did 18 months ago.

"Townsend has had a good year with a lot of publicity, most of it positive. She's gotten rid of her Democratic opponents," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research of Bethesda, which conducted the poll. "On the surface, you would think that everything is going right. Below the surface, something more seems to be going on."

The telephone survey of 1,200 registered voters was conducted for The Sun and the Gazette newspapers from July 17-19. It has a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.

Townsend lost the most support in Baltimore, where 58 percent of voters said they would vote for her, compared with 72 percent in January. Statewide, her support among African-Americans has dropped 13 percentage points in the past six months, from 90 percent to 77 percent.

Ehrlich appears to have gained the backing of black voters who have turned away from Townsend, perhaps validating his efforts to campaign in African-American communities in Baltimore and elsewhere.

"You can argue it's still summertime and people aren't paying attention to the campaign yet, but her slippage among Democrats and her base so early in the campaign is a bad sign," said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor. "Her core supporters are drifting away."

Crenson and other observers believe Townsend will respond with an aggressive negative advertising strategy, focusing on Ehrlich's state and congressional voting record on gun control, housing and other issues.

Townsend would not comment on the poll results yesterday, but a spokesman, Len Foxwell, hinted at charges that might lie ahead.

"When it comes to inclusion, tolerance and civil rights, Bobby Ehrlich has failed," Foxwell said. "When it comes to educating our children, Bobby Ehrlich has failed. When it comes to supporting working families and protecting the environment, Bobby Ehrlich has failed. Bob Ehrlich's record makes him unfit to lead the state of Maryland."

Repeated attacks would almost surely decrease Ehrlich's favorability ratings. Forty-seven percent of voters say they have a favorable impression of the congressman, compared with 14 percent who don't like him. For Townsend, 52 percent say they have a favorable view, with 36 percent unfavorable.

Paul E. Schurick, an Ehrlich campaign aide, is braced for "an all-out aggressive negative campaign against Bob."

"That's all they've got left," he said. "What they've been trying to sell isn't working."

Ehrlich said in an interview that the poll numbers confirm momentum he has sensed, which he attributes more to media interest than aggressive action by his still-developing campaign.

"The question that polls like this put to rest forever is, `Hey, Bob, can you win?'" Ehrlich said. "You can't turn on the radio or watch TV without hearing about the race. I've been surprised at how much attention it has gotten."

Townsend began the year a heavy favorite, pushing aside all other credible Democratic challengers in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1. Campaign reports due next month are expected to show her raising as much as $8 million to date, which would be nearly twice as much as Ehrlich.

But Townsend might be tarnished, in part, by her association with Gov. Parris N. Glendening, her political partner of more than seven years. The poll shows Glendening's job approval rating at its lowest point since the last election, with 42 percent of voters saying they like his performance in office and 45 percent saying they disapprove.

"Townsend's most difficult gangplank to walk is how she persuasively separates herself from the Glendening administration without appearing downright disrespectful and disloyal," Haller said.

Townsend's connection to Glendening costs her some potential votes, the poll shows, but 56 percent say it makes no difference.

One of Townsend's most prominent assets - her maiden name - appears to hurt her slightly.

About one in five Maryland voters say they are less likely to vote for the lieutenant governor because she is a member of the Kennedy family, compared with 6 percent who say they are more inclined to vote for her. Three-quarters of voters say the connection makes no difference.

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