Candidates play catch-up in Montgomery

Townsend, Ehrlich seek county's attention, votes after sniper crisis

Election 2002

October 27, 2002|By David Nitkin and Tim Craig | David Nitkin and Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE - As his daughter dribbled a black-and-white ball across a sun-splashed field, Steve Hubberman let his mind wander.

Like everyone else in Montgomery County, he was no longer preoccupied with concerns of gunmen. He could relish the routine pleasure of a weekend fourth-grade soccer game. And he could begin to think about whom he might vote for when he goes to his polling place in nine days.

"I haven't made up my mind. I have to start to focus," said Hubberman, 38, a commercial real estate broker from Potomac. "In Montgomery County, the election has been so far from everyone's thoughts, the two candidates have lost a lot of ground. In a sense, the campaign starts now."

Minutes earlier, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend had stopped by the soccer field, chatted with the girls for a bit, then rushed to a campaign rally at Montgomery College.

A few miles away at a park in Glen Echo, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. implored hundreds of his supporters to head to the polls to secure a victory he said is within reach.

With polls showing Maryland's race for governor too close to call, both candidates know they've lost precious time during the past three weeks, when they've been unable to get voters' attention.

Nowhere is that time more valuable than in Montgomery, the state's most populous jurisdiction and a crucial battleground in the gubernatorial contest and for the control of Congress.

Townsend and Ehrlich began to compensate for that loss yesterday, criss-crossing the Washington suburbs in a frenetic quest for votes. It is a push that will continue through the final full week of the campaign season, until Election Day on Nov. 5.

Their in-person efforts have grown more significant after the arrests of two suspects in the sniper crisis. The campaigns have spent millions in the costly Washington television market recently, money that was sucked into a black hole of sniper media coverage without budging poll numbers.

Townsend supporters say they need to emerge from Montgomery with at least 65 percent of the vote to be successful, a number they say they will generate with an aggressive ground assault.

"Kathleen Townsend has probably the best grass-roots, get-out-the-vote effort in Montgomery County history," said Terry Lierman, the campaign's Montgomery chairman.

Many voters undecided

Richard E. Hug, Ehrlich's campaign finance chief, said Republicans' own polling also shows that Montgomery County has among the highest numbers of undecided voters - about 13 percent - compared with other counties.

"We've got [nine] days left, so we are going to be put a tremendous focus on winning this race and a focus on winning voters in Montgomery County," Hug said.

Ehrlich told his backers that he won't be seen much outside the Washington suburbs in the coming days. "Montgomery County is vital. Prince George's County is vital," Ehrlich said. "I'm spending the rest of my time in these [counties] because we are winning by such a large margin in the rest of the state."

Yesterday's attention to Montgomery was coupled with news that political headliners were coming to the region.

Townsend announced that former President Bill Clinton will return to Maryland to campaign for her - he spent a half-day in Baltimore this month rallying support for Townsend. On Friday, Clinton will be in Prince George's County. Former Vice President Al Gore will appear on Townsend's behalf Thursday.

Not to be outdone, Ehrlich will bring former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to Gaithersburg on Nov. 3. Tomorrow, former GOP vice presidential candidate Jack F. Kemp will campaign with the congressman in Baltimore.

As they turn to their party's stars to generate excitement, the candidates and supporters are stepping up their rhetoric. During a rally of 400 Democrats at an outdoor amphitheater at Montgomery College, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes denounced Ehrlich's conservative ties. "For eight years, he has marched in lockstep with Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay," Sarbanes said. "Now he's trying to flim-flam the voters of this state."

Townsend on attack

Townsend appeared angrier than ever as she tried to debunk Ehrlich's claim that he is the kind of Republican acceptable to the famously liberal electorate in Montgomery, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 120,000.

"My opponent has ads on that call him a moderate. Is somebody who wants to eliminate the [U.S.] Department of Education a moderate?" she said. "Is somebody who wants to put industrial waste in the Chesapeake Bay a moderate? Is somebody who is against banning assault weapons a moderate?"

Townsend also invoked the name of Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, killed Friday in a plane crash, and said that his progressive ideals should be remembered on Election Day with Democratic ballots.

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