Emotions of sniper case affect campaign

Public attention diverted

crime, gun issues raised

candidates tread carefully

October 10, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The fear, uncertainty and anger that have infused the Washington-area suburbs this week are starting to shape the campaigns for Maryland governor, with both candidates hoping to project leadership in the face of the sniper crisis while trying to avoid any appearance of extracting political gain from tragedy.

Both Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. say their campaigns continue apace, despite an unsolved spate of sniper shootings that has redirected attention away from their neck-and-neck race.

But alterations are evident as they tread gingerly around an issue with potentially profound consequences.

"At this stage, both campaigns have been very careful to don surgical gloves," said Keith Haller, an independent pollster from Montgomery County. "One misstep or misstatement could have irreversible political impact."

Townsend canceled a trip yesterday to New York City, where she had planned to visit a newborn niece and attend a fund-raising dinner at the home of her aunt, former ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith.

"It was better to stay here," she said, making the decision after visiting the Montgomery law enforcement command center Tuesday night.

Instead, acting as lieutenant governor, she visited Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, where a 13-year-old boy was shot Monday, and later met with educators in Montgomery County. She spoke with teachers, administrators and a seventh-grade writing class in Bowie. News media were not invited.

"I asked them what they thought was going on. They said someone wants to intimidate us, and we are not going to let them," Townsend said. "They were really quite stunning, these young people."

Ehrlich spent a more typical campaign day, as he unveiled a substantial plan for reforming the state juvenile justice system. But he fielded questions regularly about the shootings and about his earlier call that the state should review some of its many gun laws to determine their effectiveness.

"You have to take two observations," he said during an interview on CNN's program Inside Politics. "One is the observation of gun control as a place on the campaign. But neither campaign should, in my view, politicize this tragedy.

"This is a serial killer out there trying to change our way of life. And any campaign, in my view - I think in the view of many people - that seeks to cross that line does it at a very large risk."

Ehrlich's view was echoed yesterday by political experts, who said the crisis has injected an unpredictable element into the contest just as many voters were starting to pay attention.

"There's no question, Montgomery County is going to be the key county in this state," said John N. Bambacus, a political science professor at Frostburg State University. "I also believe that what is going on right now is going to affect the election."

"When the dust settles, people are going to be thinking about this," he said. "This is visceral. There won't be an intellectual discussion about it, and it won't be a policy discussion. It could have a subliminal impact on the minds of voters."

Some observers believe Townsend could gain an advantage because her position on gun control is more closely aligned with those of voters in heavily Democratic Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

"One of the clearest distinctions between these two candidates prior to the shootings was the gun control issue," said Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, a Townsend supporter. "That debate can go on, but there is certainly going to be a different temperament underlying that debate."

"The first question is which candidate thinks it's appropriate for citizens to have assault rifles. The answer to that question is clear," Gansler said. "The second question is who can best lead in the area of crime control in the future, because nobody wants to see this happen again."

Haller, the pollster, said Ehrlich could benefit if the shooter remains at large for weeks or months.

"If the sniper crisis is long-lived, it has the potential to deflate voter interest and participation on a scale unfathomed just a week ago," he said. "If I were Townsend, I would be extremely nervous about a reduction in voter turnout in places that need to be jacked up and energized."

So far, neither candidate has crossed the line of propriety, Haller and others said. Both expressed remorse and condolences to victims' families.

Neither has sought the spotlight. But likewise, neither is shrinking from a discussion of guns and crime.

"This is about gun crime, and a very important part of our platform has been gun crime," Ehrlich said, trying to draw attention to Townsend's role as the administration's point person on crime. "We are the third-most-violent state in the country, we are first in robberies. Obviously what we have been doing in this state has not been working well."

Townsend said that neither she nor residents of the Washington suburbs should "pretend that nothing has happened."

"I'm still focused on making sure people know where I stand on issues," she said. "[Today] we have a forum on disabilities. You still have to live. You still have to deal with issues of traffic and education and health."

Tim Craig contributed to this article.

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