Strategy differs in war of words

Townsend's aides speak more often than Ehrlich's

Candidates' styles divergent

Election 2002

August 03, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

The public is hearing plenty from Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. But when voters listen for the voice of Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, they often hear a surrogate instead.

Naturally, Townsend and Ehrlich have spokesmen to do their bickering or clarify their positions, but Townsend has more of them: Three people on her staff carry the title, and she has one or two unofficial mouthpieces as well.

Ehrlich has two spokesmen - but he clearly prefers to sound off for himself.

In a recent article about gun control advocates' criticism of Ehrlich's voting record, the congressman defended himself to reporters, while Townsend spokesman Michael Morrill refused to make her available and answered a question himself. Townsend also declined to comment on recent poll results.

A quick tally of newspaper articles suggests a trend - one that even some Townsend supporters have begun grumbling about. Since she formally announced May 5 that she was running for governor, her spokesmen have been quoted in her stead 29 times in The Sun, and 27 times in The Washington Post.

They include Morrill and Len Foxwell, both former spokesmen for Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Alan Fleischmann, Townsend's campaign director and longtime chief of staff, and David Paulson, chairman of the state Democratic Party, also push her candidacy with the press.

Since Ehrlich announced his candidacy March 25, six weeks earlier than Townsend, his spokesman Paul E. Schurick has appeared in print less often - in The Sun 18 times and in The Washington Post 17 times. Shareese N. DeLeaver also has spoken for the campaign in a few other publications and on television.

Different strategies

In terms of strategy, the difference is not surprising. As a challenger with less money to spend than Townsend, Ehrlich must do whatever he can to insert himself into the news - what campaigners call "earned media" as opposed to media exposure a candidate pays for.

To that end, he has played the affable host at gatherings with reporters billed as "Bagels With Bob." He is easy to reach on the telephone, eager to sit down for an interview.

In addition, courting the press comes easily to Ehrlich, a politician who makes Jesse Ventura look shy. His garrulousness gives him strength as a public speaker; he looks and sounds as if he's enjoying himself. When DeLeaver was fielding a reporter's questions last week, Ehrlich suddenly grabbed the phone, shouting, "Hey! Howya doin'?"

Ehrlich has had a lot of practice with reporters. He has run for political office six times, and employed a spokesman only after he became a congressman, in 1994. According to Schurick, Ehrlich does not take kindly to those who try to put words in his mouth.

"It's all Bob, all the time," Schurick said.

DeLeaver and Schurick, former chief of staff to Gov. William Donald Schaefer, sit silently when their boss talks to the media, and sometimes they're not there at all. Schurick said he has gotten the "evil eye" when he has tried to participate.

The contrast between Townsend and Ehrlich - a talkative candidate by any measure - is stark. Hail-fellow-well-met banter is simply not her style. She is generally more restrained than Ehrlich. She can appear uncomfortable, and aides (usually Morrill) stay close, sometimes springing to her assistance mid-interview.

As a perceived front-runner, Townsend is in the awkward position of running not to lose. She must be very careful not to mess up - just like Glendening before her.

This has long been true in American politics, writes Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, in her book Dirty Politics.

"As a general rule, the candidate ahead in the polls is less accessible to the press than the trailing candidate," she writes. "This pattern is troubling because it raises the possibility that the candidate most likely to win is least likely to tell us what he will do in office."

Townsend asserts that no such pattern is at play. Rather, she says, news organizations are largely to blame for focusing on the race itself, rather than on issues. The news media have been quoting her significantly more in the past week, she argues, not because she is talking more often to reporters but because she has been mentioning Ehrlich by name.

"What I think basically happens is that people are interested in attacks, and on process. And I have been focusing on policy," she said.

She points out that she has issued a 32-page document titled "A Blueprint for Maryland's Future" outlining her priorities and plans, some specific and some vague.

Ehrlich, by contrast, has published brief policy bullets on his Web site that barely stretch to a page and a half. But this discrepancy gets less ink and airtime than poll stories, for example, she said.

In any case, she added, "You're going to hear a lot more from me."

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