Undecided say choices fail to motivate them

Election: Voters still sitting on the fence will likely play crucial role in the gubernatorial race.

The Maryland Poll

October 03, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

They're tired of the verbal attacks. They want to hear more about solving Maryland's budget shortfall. And they don't think either candidate has said enough about health care.

They are the undecided voters, the 12 percent of Marylanders who haven't made up their minds on the race between Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

And with a poll this week showing Townsend and Ehrlich are in a statistical dead heat, these undecided voters are likely to play a crucial role in deciding who will be Maryland's next governor.

There's just one problem - neither the lieutenant governor nor the Baltimore County congressman is sparking much interest.

"I'm looking for someone who just has the credibility and the wherewithal to demonstrate that they can drive this engine of our state," says Arthur Savage of Annapolis, a retired corporate consultant who is a registered Democrat. "I don't think Townsend demonstrates that at all and Ehrlich is just an unknown. So who do you vote for?"

The Maryland Poll - conducted by Potomac Survey Research Inc. for The Sun and The Gazette newspapers - found Townsend holding a narrow lead of 2 percentage points over Ehrlich among likely voters.

Twelve percent of those interviewed said they were undecided on the race, up from 10 percent undecided in a poll two months ago. The poll's margin of error is 3.5 percentage points.

"There's a sufficient undecided pool at this point so either candidate can win," says Keith Haller, president of the Bethesda polling firm. "These undecided voters are becoming really important to the campaigns."

Yet in interviews with those who reported being undecided in the poll, voters said over and over that they continue to have serious questions about whether either candidate is up to the job of being governor.

"I don't see a compelling reason to vote for either one," says Rita Donaldson, 59, a registered independent from Fort Washington.

Donaldson says she has "wanted to see a woman as governor for a long time," but questions whether Townsend is qualified because "whenever she speaks, she does not inspire confidence."

But she says Ehrlich seems to "be stumbling all over himself" and questions his recent statements about wanting to review the effectiveness of some gun laws. "I don't like his gun stand," she says.

"It's a very difficult election, probably the hardest one I've had to deal with," Donaldson says.

Garry Cashwell, a 46-year-old automotive manufacturer's representative from Laurel, says he is a lifelong Democrat who is looking for leadership from either political party.

"For the past several years, I've felt like I'm more open to vote Republican, based on the right person for the job," Cashwell says. "I'm ready to be influenced, but I'm not hearing it from either party. Why aren't they talking more about how to fix our public schools?"

Concerns about Ehrlich and gun control are common among undecided voters, according to an analysis of the poll results. Undecided voters appear much more likely than the entire Maryland electorate to say they would be more reluctant to vote for Ehrlich because he has been backed by the National Rifle Association.

"The gun issue, if employed by Townsend, can work very powerfully in this soft, undecided group," says Steven R. Raabe, executive vice president of Potomac. "It appears there may be some significance for Townsend's campaign."

Other characteristics of Maryland's undecided voters also may give hope to Townsend's campaign, say analysts who have reviewed some of the poll results.

For example, undecided voters are much less likely to dislike Gov. Parris N. Glendening than the full voting population, according to the poll.

"I like a lot of what he did," says Alice Wyche, 67, a retired nursing assistant from East Baltimore who wants to hear more about health care for senior citizens, not just prescription drugs. "Some things I wasn't too pleased with, but I think he did a pretty good job overall."

With Ehrlich seeking to link Townsend to Glendening and capitalize on the governor's growing unpopularity, the lack of a strong negative opinion against the governor among undecided voters suggests that tactic might not be particularly effective.

"This probably means there's an opportunity among those independents for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend," says Douglas Harris, a political science professor at Loyola College. "These are people who haven't been turned off over the last eight years, but they also haven't been turned on to the campaign yet. It will be a tricky task for her to lay claim to these voters."

But Ehrlich can also find some hope in where undecided voters live. They appear to be pretty evenly distributed across the state, rather than being concentrated only in such Democratic strongholds as the Washington suburbs.

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