Public Townsend a work in progress

Image: Though some voters question her ability, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate seems to be gaining confidence as Election Day nears.

Election 2002

October 23, 2002|By Jeff Barker and David Nitkin | Jeff Barker and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Deep into her campaign, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has yet to shake a sense among one-third of likely voters that she isn't up to the job of being governor - a perception many say is rooted as much in her public style as in her ability.

Townsend's public persona remains a work in progress. Little-known when selected by Gov. Parris N. Glendening as his running mate eight years ago, she raised doubts among many voters early on with uneven speaking performances and gaffes widely circulated by news organizations.

But those who deal with Townsend in small venues say they see a different politician: one who is bright, compassionate and comfortable, and who exudes competence.

"A small group is probably her favorite setting because it's a little easier to connect with people," said Sue Brown, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. "You don't really call Parris Glendening `Parris,' but you call her `Kathleen.' For some reason, there is more of a collegial atmosphere with her as opposed to, `I'm the chief!' "

Others who work with Townsend have come away similarly impressed. "I'd rather have someone who is genuine and maybe stumbles on occasion than someone who is glib," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat.

Indeed, most of her public speaking opportunities still begin with a small flub or two - a dropped syllable, a wrong tense. Sometimes her head shakes or she squints her eyes shut as she begins an answer; sometimes she appears unnerved.

At the same time, Townsend has grown more confident on the stump as the campaign has unfolded. She has met thousands of people in a variety of gatherings, many of whom walk away saying she came across better than expected.

"I was never as bad as everybody said," Townsend said. "And people focused on it, and it was an easy focus. And very frankly, it was a great focus for people running against me. They didn't have much else to go on. I've done a really good job as lieutenant governor."

Different demeanors

Still, supporters acknowledge a gap between her demeanor in casual surroundings and her performance on a larger stage - whether before a television camera or a packed auditorium.

"The positive about her, what makes her attractive in small groups, is she has an enormous passion for the issues, for the public service, for the welfare of other people," said Daniel M. Clements, a trial lawyer and longtime political observer who is chairman of Planned Parenthood of Maryland.

"But she is reluctant to talk publicly about what brought her to that passion," Clements said. "In a small group, you can see the passion in her eyes, and you hear it in her voice. In a large group, just like everything else on stage, it requires exaggeration, and she's not willing to do that. It's not who she is."

While that might seem like a superficial shortcoming, appearances count in politics.

Public speaking - through prepared speeches, sound bites and longer interviews - is how candidates demonstrate they possess the expertise, competency and honesty that voters value, said Kathleen A. Kendell, an expert in political communication and a visiting professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"Being authoritative, showing you know what you are talking about - it's all about perception," Kendell said. "Speeches are a major way in which the candidates can make contact with the voters and demonstrate they have these desired traits."

Even so, the list of verbally challenged politicians is long and impressive. State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer was elected governor twice despite a speaking style that jumps from point to point and sometimes leaves thoughts dangling. President George W. Bush overcame a propensity for malapropisms that spawned a book about his "accidental wit."

`Not capable enough'

Townsend narrowly led Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in a late-September Maryland Poll for The Sun. But more than one in three likely voters - and 42 percent of the men - agreed with the statement that Townsend "is not capable enough to handle the job of governor."

"When she was lieutenant governor, she put her foot in her mouth. There were a lot of slips. But she has her handlers around her now," said Morris Wright, 68, a retired Marine from Gwynn Oak. "I think she's intelligent, but the way she comes across, I don't have much confidence in her."

To be sure, there are occasions where Townsend shines.

At a conference of the Maryland Municipal League this month, she delivered a near-flawless address to scores of mayors and local elected officials, outlining a detailed vision of the relationship between the state and its smaller jurisdictions.

She surprised many viewers of last month's televised debate, who found her poised and commanding.

"I thought she was impressive in that debate," said Kendell, the College Park professor.

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