More bumps in the bumper-sticker phase

August 18, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

BUMPER STICKERS and lawn signs don't vote, but they start conversations.

Why are there so many more "Ehrlich for Governor" strips?

Who's putting out the red and blue one that says, "Democrats work/Republicans whine"?

And what about, "You're better qualified than Kathleen"?

It's all part of a campaign's early phase, the one where you try to become a household word. You oil up the apparatus so it can get the converts and the base to the polls.

Thus do party professionals express high anxiety about Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's campaign.

Last week, she tried to solve one big problem by making state Sen. Clarence W. Blount, who is black, a senior campaign adviser, anointing him as her secretary of state if she becomes governor.

Normally, senior and junior advisers would have been in place long ago. But some black voters tell pollsters they're voting for her Republican opponent, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Usually, most African-Americans don't even think about voting for Republicans.

Many factors explain their willingness to consider Mr. Ehrlich, but one of them gets most of the attention: He chose a black running mate while Ms. Townsend chose retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, who is white.

Promises get made in politics, of course - but usually at a much lower level. Pandering after voter blocks is hardly exceptional, either. But hauling out an 81-year-old about-to-retire state senator to reassure your most loyal supporters fell on the desperate side of the scale.

Senator Blount may help. He's a man of dignity and pioneering accomplishment. But he could hurt, too. His endorsed candidate for senator in the city's 41st District, Del. Lisa A. Gladden, opposes Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. Ms. Hoffman - who might otherwise have been a strong Kennedy ally - is not happy about the prominence given by Ms. Townsend to her opponent's mentor.

Mr. Blount, moreover, cannot replace Mr. Larson - though the admiral must have been sent to the movies during a recent tour of Baltimore. He was nowhere to be seen.

And there's another tactical price: Can the Townsend forces belabor Mr. Ehrlich for being a Johnny-come-lately in his courtship of black voters? His running mate is Michael S. Steele, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party. If Mr. Ehrlich is elected, Mr. Steele will be lieutenant governor.

Panic may be appropriate.

She's losing by wide margins where presumably Marylanders know her best. She lives in Ruxton, a Baltimore County neighborhood. Democrats who ought to be running confidently beneath her banner are shying away.

Senator Blount may help in Baltimore, but what of Montgomery County? Oddly enough, it begins to look like Ms. Townsend's base. She's been running well ahead of Mr. Ehrlich in the Washington-oriented county. But feelings were bruised there when popular county Councilman Isiah Leggett, who is black, was passed over for lieutenant governor. Having taken black voters for granted and offended that part of the base, is she now at risk of re-offending Montgomery?

Such are the political costs of not getting it right the first time.

Some prognosticators expected the Kennedy forces to soldier on until their advertising men carpet-bombed Mr. Ehrlich into the Stone Age. They imagined the old Democratic instincts would be adequately stimulated by former President Bill Clinton, among others, to save the day, declaiming for Ms. Townsend from area pulpits.

But the challenges keep coming.

The FBI recently grabbed documents and interviewed workers from an anti-crime office that, with a $45 million budget, oversees much of the lieutenant governor's claim to voter support. In effect, the feds began hacking at her platform.

If wrongdoing is uncovered, that would suggest she was out of touch, reminding voters of her boot camps, where inmates were beaten and abused without her knowledge.

She has suggested that Mr. Ehrlich and U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio, both Republicans, are in league to smear her. Can't be dismissed out of hand. Not at all. Mr. DiBiagio has a reputation for heavily starched professionalism, but he's a Republican working for a Republican attorney general and beholden to a Republican Party that would dearly love to unseat a Kennedy, no less, in liberal Maryland, no less.

And this is just the bumper-sticker phase.

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

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