Gubernatorial race is a dead heat, poll says

Governor's race too close to call

Election: Late-deciding voters will likely sway close contests for the state's top office and for two congressional seats.

October 02, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The race for Maryland governor is deadlocked and will be decided by voters who have yet to choose between Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and by a shrinking pool of others still willing to change their minds, a new poll released yesterday shows.

With five weeks until the election, Townsend's precipitous drop in support since January has slowed, while Ehrlich has fortified his base in the Baltimore region and is poised to take advantage of mounting concern over Maryland's $1.7 billion shortfall.

According to a survey conducted by Potomac Survey Research Inc., Townsend leads Ehrlich 45 percent to 43 percent statewide, an edge that rests within the poll's margin of error of 3.5 percentage points. Twelve percent of voters are undecided.

Two months ago, Townsend led Ehrlich 47 percent to 44 percent in the Maryland Poll; in January, her lead was 15 points.

"We have a real barnburner on our hands," said Potomac President Keith Haller. "With Townsend, the slide has apparently stopped. It's certainly one of the closest governor's races in the country right now."

The gubernatorial contest is one of three high-profile Maryland races that are too close to call.

In the 2nd Congressional District, which includes parts of Baltimore and Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties, Republican Helen Delich Bentley is ahead of Democrat C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger 42 percent to 40 percent, with 18 percent undecided.

Christopher Van Hollen Jr., a Democrat, leads Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella 43 percent to 40 percent in the 8th District in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Undecided voters total 17 percent.

The poll of 803 likely voters, sponsored by The Sun and The Gazette newspapers in suburban Washington, was conducted by telephone Sept. 25 through Friday. Quotas were used to make sure the sample reflected the racial, partisan, age and geographic breakdown of the likely November voters.

During the second night of polling, Townsend and Ehrlich squared off in the first televised debate of the campaign. Survey results do not fully reflect the impact of the debate on voters' views, Haller said.

Growing dissatisfaction

In the statewide election, the poll showed dissatisfaction with both candidates swelling, a result of increasingly negative campaign rhetoric and advertisements, and heightened visibility of Townsend and Ehrlich.

The percentage of voters with an unfavorable impression of Ehrlich has nearly doubled in the past two months, from 14 percent to 27 percent. Forty-eight percent of voters say they have a favorable impression of him.

"They gave Ehrlich pretty much an open field to run in August, but sooner or later, the free ride was going to end," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College. "The Townsend campaign made some mid-course corrections. The advertising began as most of us expected it would. It's taking its toll."

The Timonium congressman has not run statewide before and was unknown to six in 10 voters as recently as January. But particularly in the Washington suburbs - where Townsend and her allies have hammered at Ehrlich's record on guns and other issues - almost all of those who formed an opinion about him recently don't like him, the poll showed.

The percentage of likely voters agreeing with the statement "Bob Ehrlich is too conservative for Maryland" rose to 30 percent from 23 percent in July.

"Marylanders are realizing that there is only one moderate candidate in the race," Townsend spokesman Peter Hamm said.

Paul Schurick, an Ehrlich spokesman, said he believes Townsend's tactics will fail before long.

"The negative strategy of name-calling and racial insults takes its toll in the short run," Schurick said. "We believe in the long run, it will completely backfire, as African-American voters and Jewish voters realize what that campaign is all about." The poll showed Townsend's popularity, too, is declining, but at a slower rate than during most of the year.

Although exactly half of voters say they have a favorable opinion of the lieutenant governor, her rating slipped from 52 percent two months ago, while those with an unfavorable impression rose from 36 percent to 38 percent.

The pollsters said Townsend's negatives were "dangerously high," though she maintained support among African-Americans (82 percent favorable), liberals (80 percent) and voters with post-graduate education (65 percent).

Ehrlich scores best among conservatives (65 percent favorable) and anti-abortion voters (60 percent).

In describing what they disliked about Townsend, voters were more likely to point to personal attributes, while Ehrlich detractors mentioned his issue positions more frequently.

Sixteen percent of voters with an unfavorable impression of Townsend said they think she is unqualified or not intelligent enough to perform the job of governor.

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