Townsend camp approaches two with political experience

Poll drop triggers hunt for election veterans

August 10, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

With her double-digit lead vaporized, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is looking to widen her tight circle of advisers with political veterans who could stabilize her suddenly vulnerable campaign for governor.

The Townsend camp has contacted Karen White, manager of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's 1998 re-election effort, about assuming a high-profile role in this year's race.

Aides have also spoken with Michael H. Davis, a former top aide to Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, about managing the "coordinated campaign," a shared effort to elect Democrats across the state.

The Townsend campaign said her rapid drop in the polls -- a 15-point lead over Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in January dwindled to 3 points in The Sun's latest survey -- has not triggered a staffing overhaul.

"I can confirm that the campaign is reaching out to many new people," said Kate Philips, a Townsend spokeswoman. "It's time. As the campaign grows, as the efforts continue to grow, the team grows."

But political observers say the lieutenant governor must act quickly and decisively to reverse her slump.

"I think they should be sounding every alarm bell in the place," said James G. Gimpel, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. "If I were a dyed-in-the-wool Maryland Democratic, I'd be scared out of my wits right now," he said.

Some Democrats are urging Townsend to rely less on her chief of staff, Alan H. Fleischmann, a near-constant companion who has a hand in every important decision.

On leave from the lieutenant governor's office, Fleischmann has the title of campaign CEO but has little background running a statewide race.

Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University, said staff additions or reassignments will go only so far.

"The biggest change needs to come from the candidate," Crenson said. "She needs to get a little bolder, and more confident on the platform. ... The impression comes across that she is tentative, cautious and skittish." Both White and Davis would boost the experience of Townsend's campaign management.

White, 36, moved from Idaho, where she headed the state Democratic Party, to join Glendening's 1998 re-election bid.

Considered a top-notch grass-roots organizer, she was expected to play a similar role this year's race, but sources say she clashed with Fleischmann. She is a communications director for Glendening.

Davis, 41, has worked on campaigns for then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, Ruppersberger and others. He is a partner with Venable Attorneys at Law in Towson and is considered among the keenest minds in Maryland politics.

Neither White nor Davis would comment yesterday on their discussions with the Townsend camp.

In addition to changes in staff, some political veterans are urging a change in strategy.

The lieutenant governor has not yet launched an all-out advertising attack on Ehrlich's congressional voting record, which Democrats say is too conservative for Maryland.

"Once the Townsend campaign starts to define Ehrlich, its going to change the dynamic," said David Weaver, an aide to Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

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