Ms. Townsend and the perturbation factor

July 28, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

THE REPUBLICAN'S ahead.

OK, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich trails Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend by 3 percentage points. But in a 2-1 Democratic state, he's the frontrunner.

Ms. Townsend's lost most of her 15-point advantage over the last six months. Go back 18 months, and the slide runs to 24 percent. Her disapproval ratings - the percentage of people who find her performance as lieutenant governor wanting - are way higher. Before the campaign, she had seemed impervious to problems erupting around her. Her Teflon's gone.

But it's still her race to lose. Right now, she's doing just that. But she has plenty of time and money to communicate her message and to project a leadership persona - unless negative perceptions have burrowed too deeply.

Keith Haller, a respected pollster from Bethesda, says his recent survey for The Sun sends an urgent message to the Townsend camp: Examine everything you're doing. Now. He senses a "perturbation" with her that must be identified and countered.

Outside handicappers offer a variety of explanations for the Ehrlich surge.

He has masterfully exploited his Maryland roots. He's a blue-collar kid from Arbutus in Baltimore County. Subtext: Ms. Townsend's a rich interloper, raising big bucks in Hyannisport, Mass.

Mr. Ehrlich picked a black running mate, Michael S. Steele, who also came up from somewhere below privilege.

Neither side has a fully articulated message, but Ehrlich-Steele wins the partial message contest. They call themselves the "opportunity team." Ms. Townsend's most memorable phrase is "indispensable destiny" - her articulation of the idea that everyone can have lofty aspirations and achievements.

We're talking imagery here. "Opportunity team" resonates where it needs to for Mr. Ehrlich. "Indispensable destiny" consternates or maybe even infuriates. One respondent in the poll said he had the feeling Ms. Townsend, a member of the Kennedy family, was running on the Kennedy ticket.

Mr. Haller's poll for The Sun finds that neither candidate's running mate hurts or helps much so far. Retired Adm. Charles Larson, once commander of the Pacific Fleet, was Ms. Townsend's choice. Actually, a command presence may be needed to pull the Democratic campaign into fighting trim.

Mr. Ehrlich wins - by default - in the early battle for a winning identity. He offers himself as a moderate largely on the basis of his pro-choice position and a stance on guns that doesn't embrace every concern of the National Rifle Association. He's making it stick so far, though he was an acolyte to Newt Gingrich, high priest of the 1990s Republican revival in Washington. So far, the Townsend side has allowed him the privilege of an uncontested makeover. Look for that free ride to end.

But both sides will have to handle the identity issue with care: Mr. Ehrlich may have to own up to his conservative voting record, but that may not be as much of a liability as some think. The Sun poll shows 36 percent of Marylanders call themselves "very conservative" (8 percent) or "somewhat conservative" (28 percent). Many fewer, 24 percent, see themselves as "very liberal" (6 percent) or "somewhat liberal" (18 percent). Kennedys are liberal, right?

Voters in Maryland put public education at the top of their priority list. But it's a costly priority and difficult to honor at a time when analysts say the state government faces a wide gap between spending and income.

Here again an early edge in the tactical maneuvering goes to Mr. Ehrlich. He favors the installation of slot machines at race tracks, by which the state would raise an estimated $400 million. Partly because they may realize the state's shaky fiscal position, voters have swung sharply toward favoring slots at the tracks. And even in Democratic Maryland, many voters think Mr. Ehrlich would be best able (43 percent to 36 percent) to manage the state's budget.

And here's the unkindest cut for Ms. Townsend:

Some 33 percent - one third of the 1,200 polled - said they did not think she was up to the job. Respondents were asked about Ms. Townsend's competency because various gaffes have raised the question frequently during the campaign.

Both sides may take heart - or further concern - from the poll's attempt to measure depth of commitment. Fewer than six in 10 said their minds were made up. Forty percent said they might vote for the other side. So, ahead or behind, both campaigns have plenty of persuadable voters to find and convince.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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