A day after a closed-door strategy session on regenerating Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's struggling bid for governor, top Maryland Democrats insisted her slide could be reversed in time for a November victory.
Democratic officials said Townsend's voter-mobilization plan and advertising efforts are sound - despite nagging concerns about her campaign's management and what is seen as a lack of support from some party leaders such as Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.
"This is so well organized. We all got our assignments about where to campaign and how much money to raise," said U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. "I believe that the early [Republican Robert L.] Ehrlich effort gained a certain momentum because of the novelty. Where we are now is where we all thought we would be. All over the nation, the gubernatorial races are narrowing."
Maryland Democrats met in Washington on Tuesday for a campaign planning session; such sessions are held every two years, after the primary. But this year's meeting came with an air of urgency: Townsend has slipped behind Ehrlich in the latest polls, a double-digit lead erased even with advantages in money, name identification and party registration. Still, top elected officials say they can pull ahead before Nov. 5.
"I think it's winnable," said Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. "Once [Townsend] starts comparing her vision with Bob's, it will make a difference. She may not be there yet, but we have seven weeks left."
"The campaign is taking a significant turn for the better," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings.
Some session participants, notably Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, called on party leaders to get more involved in Townsend's race. Hoyer singled out O'Malley - whose absence was notable - and telephoned him later to urge more enthusiasm.
O'Malley - who considered entering the primary for governor - insists he has endorsed Townsend. Others disagree.
"He knows what an endorsement is," Mikulski said. "An endorsement requires an endorsement. It's not like, `I would support the Democratic nominee.'"
Townsend said yesterday that reports of a campaign in disarray are exaggerated.
"This campaign is strong, and it is getting stronger," she said, quickly changing the focus to differences between her and Ehrlich on education, health care, the environment and guns - the theme of her television advertising campaign under way.
"He is on the wrong side of the issues. I am determined to make that clear in the next few weeks of the campaign," she said. "It is very clear he doesn't want to talk about his record. He wants to talk about his childhood, how he won scholarships to college and then when he gets to Congress, he votes to cut them. He pulls the ladder up when he gets success."
Other Democrats agreed yesterday that Townsend's challenge is to give voters a better sense of her positions.
"The Democratic campaign for governor is not clear what its message is," said Del. Michael E. Busch of Anne Arundel County. "The real question is, is Kathleen Kennedy Townsend up to the task, and what is she going to do if she's elected governor? The other portion is, [voters] don't know enough about Ehrlich."
Busch said top party figures such as Mikulski and Hoyer must play a larger role, with no finger-pointing at Townsend.
"I wouldn't even bring Kathleen into it," Busch said. "I'd have those people together and say, `What are you going to do to produce?' They can't lay it all on her. They have to be out there every night moving votes."
Mikulski said that's just what is happening, with roles clarified during the strategy session.
Other adjustments are in the works.
Rep. Albert R. Wynn said yesterday that he has asked the campaign to hire Julius Henson, a contentious Baltimore-based political manager, to assist with ground-level efforts in Prince George's County.
"He's going to be working field operations," Wynn said. "He's a tough campaigner, and he knows how to get out the vote. I recommended him."
Henson, who worked for at least 13 candidates for state and local offices in the primaries, did not return a telephone call seeking comment yesterday.
A Democratic Party official said Henson would be paid through a joint account referred to as the coordinated campaign, not by Townsend.
Also yesterday, speculation continued to swirl about the role of Townsend campaign director Alan H. Fleischmann, who has borne much of the criticism for the lieutenant governor's sagging campaign.
Townsend spokesman Peter Hamm reaffirmed that Fleischmann is an active participant in campaign strategy.
But Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat, said a "drumbeat" to oust him continues.
"Alan is going to be a great chief of staff. He's not a great campaign manager," Rawlings said. "This race shouldn't have slipped that far."
Staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.