Beyond the horse race

July 24, 2002

WITH MORE THAN three months before the general election, The Sun's poll of voter opinion suggests a real race for governor of Maryland.

The likely Republican nominee, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democratic frontrunner, find themselves separated by a mere 3 percentage points. Mr. Ehrlich has erased -- or Ms. Townsend has squandered -- a lead of 15 percentage points over the last six months. She leads, but no more than 47 to 44, with 10 percent undecided.

For the voters, a close race should be a very good thing. Candidates will have to run on the quality of their ideas, on leadership potential and on a direction for Maryland.

So far, none of the challenges facing Maryland has been adequately addressed by either candidate. And far more questions than answers have emerged:

How should Marylanders and their governor fill a potential $2 billion gap between already planned state spending and revenue? Much of the flexibility for balancing the budget was used this year, meaning that Maryland's next governor almost certainly will have to cut programs or raise taxes. So far, the campaign proposals don't add up. Each campaign needs to present a comprehensive approach to this problem and soon.

Who will adequately address crime -- particularly gun crime in Baltimore? Imaginative new thinking is desperately needed. Drug-related killing in the city amounts to a public health crisis that cannot be ignored.

What measures would the candidates offer to continue the promising Smart Growth initiatives of the Glendening administration? Each campaign needs to offer a treatise on the environment -- from protecting the Chesapeake Bay to the environmental challenges of lead paint poisoning in Baltimore.

How will Maryland relieve the pressure now exerted on virtually every aspect of health care in the state? Far too many people lack health care insurance. Medicaid costs are rising, and financial support for mental health clinics must be improved.

A close race makes every issue critical, but it also requires some caution: Fund-raising fever could go way up as both sides say extra dollars will make all the difference. More worrisome, a tight race could tempt the two sides toward negative campaigns.

Certainly, it's fair -- and important -- to focus attention on an opponent's record so that choices are clear. But Maryland voters want and deserve high-minded competition for their support.

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