Sniper news overshadows candidates

Townsend, Ehrlich fight to be heard in final days

`Difficult to get message out'

TV ads will play big role in reaching Md. voters

Election 2002

October 23, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Maryland's race for governor entered its final two-week stretch yesterday with both campaigns struggling to get voters to pay attention amid the terror of the Washington-area sniper shootings.

With almost every Maryland television newscast and newspaper front page dominated by the killings, neither Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend nor Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is having luck, many days, capturing much, if any, prominent coverage.

"People's minds and people's attention are paid to their families right now," said Ehrlich spokesman Paul E. Schurick. "It might make it more difficult to get a message out. You have to answer the age-old question of how relevant politics is."

Said Townsend spokesman Peter Hamm: "Clearly, it is hard to do everything right now, no matter who you are."

The ability to spread their messages became even more critical yesterday as a new poll showed the candidates still in a statistical dead heat.

The poll released yesterday by Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications Inc. of Annapolis found Ehrlich leading Townsend 46 percent to 45 percent, with Libertarian candidate Spear Lancaster at 1 percent.

The remaining 8 percent of likely voters are undecided, and the poll had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

"It may sound trite, but it's so close that every vote counts," said pollster Carol Arscott. "From the look of the newspaper and television, you'd never know there was an election in two weeks. That's not the voters' fault, ... but this is when your TV buy [commercials] becomes so important."

About the only groups that seem to be having success spreading their message are gun control advocates -- though an endorsement rally planned for Townsend yesterday morning in front of the State House was canceled and was replaced by an impromptu news conference.

Townsend and Sarah Brady, chairman of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, decided the rally would be inappropriate just hours after the latest shooting yesterday morning in Montgomery County, though other advocates stepped up their rhetoric.

`Use this opportunity'

"We need to speak out more than ever," said Leah Barrett, vice president of the Million Mom March's Montgomery chapter, which is a partner of the Brady Campaign. "If it takes a sniper to wake us up, at least we can use this opportunity to get the attention of our politicians."

Though both Townsend and Ehrlich have said they don't want to politicize the shootings, the lieutenant governor's campaign and gun control groups have grown more vocal in recent days talking about the Baltimore County congressman's record.

Gun control laws

Gun control advocates label Ehrlich an extremist for voting to repeal the federal ban on assault weapons and opposing Maryland's ban on cheaply made handguns.

But Ehrlich and his supporters say his record is moderate, pointing to his support for background checks and gun-safety locks.

Townsend -- who last week said she wants to expand Maryland's ballistic fingerprinting program to include assault rifles sold legally in the state -- has recently run two television advertisements focusing on gun control.

"It would be irresponsible not to bring up this issue," said Michael Beard, president of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "Ten years ago, we tried to get a national ballistic fingerprinting program through Congress, and if we hadn't been blocked by the National Rifle Association, it's possible we would know more today about the sniper shootings."

Ehrlich's spokesman suggested gun control advocates are seeking to make political gains from the tragedy.

"I think bringing it up like that does unnecessarily politicize it," Schurick said.

"We have absolutely no idea about what's going on, and to suggest that laws that are either on Maryland's books or not on Maryland's books are playing any role is chilling and unnecessary," he said.

Schurick also said that if gun control groups want to criticize Ehrlich's record, they also ought to focus on the background check problems of the current administration.

"Maryland is failing miserably in something as simple as background checks and the failure to prosecute criminals with illegal guns," Schurick said.

Last week, it was reported that the Maryland State Archives had stopped cooperating with the FBI for four months on background checks on some gun buyers because of a $45,000 budget shortfall.

Three years ago, flaws were found in the state system designed to prevent handgun purchases by people with protective orders against them for domestic violence.

Supporting Townsend

Ginni Wolf, executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse -- which had never previously endorsed a candidate until yesterday's announcement of its support for Townsend -- said the group doesn't blame the lieutenant governor for breakdowns in background checks.

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