Townsend campaign says it is revitalized in debate aftermath

Staff claims victory, sees momentum

Ehrlich says opponent is `in meltdown'

GOP candidate `was set up'

Election 2002

September 28, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend delivered a potent performance in Thursday's televised debate that her supporters hope will reinvigorate her campaign for governor.

Townsend and her staff entered the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University with chins hung low. Recent polls have her trailing Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., albeit by a statistically insignificant margin. And some top Democrats around the state have been slow to endorse her.

But after a 90-minute encounter where Townsend unleashed well-timed one-liners at her opponent, Democratic campaign staffers emerged hopeful and re-energized.

"The heart gets very heavy when the press and your opponent are beating you over the head with a club every day," said Peter Hamm, a spokesman for Townsend. "When your candidate picks up an even bigger club and hammers your opponent to the ground, it's magic."

The debate aired live only on cable channels, opposite some of television's most popular programs, and was rebroadcast later on network affiliates. But partisans on both sides were abuzz yesterday as they dissected the outcome and disseminated their conclusions.

"The postmortems on this debate are going to bounce around the political echo chamber for a week or 10 days," said Blair Lee IV, a Montgomery County developer and longtime observer of Maryland politics. "The same way all of her gaffes and miscues followed her all summer, this puts wind in her sails."

Democrats were boasting that Townsend caught Ehrlich off balance from the outset, and that the congressman never recovered.

"They're still looking for the black box to find out what happened to him," said Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler.

Republicans said a predisposed crowd at historically black Morgan State tilted the playing field. Ehrlich's family was booed as they entered the auditorium, and the congressman was shouted down before he could deliver an opening statement.

"Had the disruption not occurred in the beginning, he would have hit his groove a lot earlier," said Michael S. Steele, Ehrlich's running mate. "But he got knocked out of debate mode even before he said, `Hi, I'm Bob Ehrlich.' He was set up. It threw a monkey wrench in things."

Members of Ehrlich's own party could not bring themselves to declare him a winner. Steele, for example, said he thought both candidates won.

"I'm not making excuses. He did not perform up to what he's capable of," said Al Mendelsohn, vice chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee. "I've heard him debate where he sparkles. [Thursday] night, there was no sparkle."

The Townsend campaign has been searching for weeks for an issue or opportunity to provide traction.

The aura of invincibility that surrounded her bid last spring has eroded. Her choice of a white former Republican as a running mate alienated some African-Americans. Ehrlich bumper stickers have blossomed like dandelions on Maryland roads. Campaign staffers pointed fingers at one another as Ehrlich rose in the polls.

But Townsend supporters say their batteries are now recharged.

"It makes a difference whether people want to work until midnight or they're dying to go home at 8 p.m.," Hamm said.

It was never obvious that a debate would go her way. Townsend frequently comes across as tongue-tied in public, and polls show that many potential voters doubt her competency and leadership. It was Ehrlich -- not Townsend -- who was demanding debates.

"If she hasn't put to rest all of the questions about her capacity and her grasp of the issues, she's come pretty close," said Douglas Harris, a professor of political science at Loyola College.

Some Democrats now say they'd be surprised if Townsend accepts another debate, suggesting it would be hard for her to perform better.

But the win was not pretty.

The audience at Morgan State, packed with supporters from both sides, became a factor in the debate. A stern-looking Kweisi Mfume, president and chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, took to the stage early on to urge decorum. (The organization's Baltimore branch sponsored the event.)

Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick said Ehrlich's truck, a Ford Expedition leased by the campaign, was plastered with Townsend bumper stickers during the debate.

"Listen, this is a campaign in meltdown over there," Ehrlich said yesterday. "You saw the anger and you saw the frustration last night. It's attack, attack, demonize, demagogue. This is an entitlement mentality now challenged. Guess what? The coronation is off track, big time."

An upbeat Townsend relished her performance yesterday, saying her opponent did more "kvetching and complaining" than offering solutions to the state's problems. She said Ehrlich's addressing her as "ma'am" was "condescending."

"He talked down to me," she said.

Fresh off its success, the Townsend campaign issued a statement yesterday calling for a debate between the running mates, Democrat Charles R. Larson, a retired admiral, and Steele, the former state GOP chairman.

Townsend also repeated her desire for a second debate with Ehrlich, and said her preference would be an appearance at Maryland Public Television with no live audience.

Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.

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