Still up for grabs

October 02, 2002

ANYONE WHO IS just tuning in to Election 2002 will find a tight race for governor -- and a state split along the fault lines of race, region and issues, according to a new poll taken for The Sun.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend holds a narrow lead over Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- 45 percent to 43 percent -- with 12 percent undecided.

Bottom line: It's contentious and close.

Also volatile.

In populous and politically sophisticated Montgomery County, a key battleground, Ms. Townsend is well ahead. But 39 percent of her supporters there said they might consider another candidate. This finding should buoy Mr. Ehrlich in a part of the state where he is less well-known.

Conversely, in his own base -- Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, for example -- his support is more deeply committed than Ms. Townsend's in Montgomery. Of those who support him in Baltimore County, for example, 92 percent said their minds are made up.

The poll shows great polarization regionally, with the Washington suburbs strongly favoring Ms. Townsend, the Baltimore metropolitan area outside the city backing Mr. Ehrlich. The poll suggests some room for both candidates to improve their positions.

The gun control issue and his association with the National Rifle Association helps Mr. Ehrlich in his base -- and could hurt him in more liberal Montgomery County.

Ms. Townsend leads among black voters, Mr. Ehrlich among whites. He does slightly better among the most likely voters, moving the race into a statistical dead heat, 46 percent to 46 percent.

The Townsend forces will see great success in the rise of Mr. Ehrlich's "negatives" -- a reflection of their efforts to portray his voting record in Congress as too conservative for Maryland. Those respondents who disapprove of that record almost doubled from 14 percent during the last Sun poll in July to 27 percent now. Those who view him favorably rose one point, from 47 percent to 48 percent.

Ms. Townsend's own approval rating fell slightly and remains worrisome for her. The poll was taken late last week and probably does not reflect her unexpectedly strong performance at a debate on Thursday: Fifty percent of the sample viewed her favorably, while 38 percent viewed her unfavorably.

On the issue of managing Maryland's finances, 45 percent preferred Mr. Ehrlich. On education issues, Ms. Townsend led with 49 percent of the respondents favoring her.

The race could turn, finally, on the undecideds and "persuadables" -- those voters who have not made final decisions about the candidate they will support.

Given that -- and how close the race appears to be -- voters deserve to see at least one more debate between the candidates before votes are cast in November.

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