Support of women voters for Townsend lukewarm

Gender: The lieutenant governor leads, a poll shows, but not by as much as expected.

Election 2002

November 02, 2002|By Howard Libit and Sarah Koenig | Howard Libit and Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

The women - about 1,500 of them - gathered in a Woodlawn ballroom to rally for one of their own. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend needed help.

"Kathleen is ready to take us along the next step as Maryland's first woman governor," actress Cicely Tyson told the cheering overflow crowd at Martin's West. "In doing so, we pay tribute to all those women who came before us and elevate the future possibilities of the women who will come after us."

The next night, an equal number of women packed a Bethesda hotel to revel in the same message.

But beneath the rhetoric of solidarity buoying these Townsend rallies is a troubling reality: Women are not supporting Townsend in droves.

While she leads Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. among likely female voters, the "gender gap" is slimmer than most analysts would expect. Townsend is, after all, a progressive female Democrat taking on a Republican man in a Democrat-dominated state where women make up about 55 percent of voters.

But various factors have combined to put off a segment of female voters. Some link her to the weaknesses of Gov. Parris N. Glendening or simply don't think she, as a Kennedy, deserves the job.

In addition, Ehrlich has presented himself as a moderate on social issues such as abortion, making women feel safe voting for him.

The Maryland Poll, taken for The Sun and The Gazette newspapers by Potomac Survey Research Inc., found Townsend leading Ehrlich among women 49 percent to 42 percent with a week to go until Election Day.

By contrast, the poll shows Ehrlich leading Townsend among men, 54 percent to 38 percent - a large enough difference to overcome the fact that women make up a larger share of the electorate.

"That gap among women is not enough for Townsend," said pollster Keith Haller, president of Potomac. "She needs to seriously get greater support among women in order to prevail."

Past elections suggest Maryland women should be Townsend's not-so-secret weapon. In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore beat George Bush among Maryland's female voters by 18 percentage points, the second-largest gender gap in the United States, according to an analysis by the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Townsend's support among women appears to be less than the margin held in 1998 by Glendening when he took on Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey. In the Maryland Poll taken a week before that Election Day, Glendening led Sauerbrey among women by 14 percentage points - a margin that helped propel him and Townsend to an easy victory.

"This mantra, this theme of being the first woman governor, it hasn't permeated," Haller said. "It hasn't caught fire with women."

Patricia Waldman of Annapolis said she hopes to see a woman governor but is frustrated by Townsend's candidacy.

"I don't know that she's the right one," said Waldman, 52, a special education lawyer for a nonprofit organization. "She was anointed from the beginning, and anyone who was going to try and compete with her in the primary was discouraged. I really objected to that."

Waldman said the only Republican she has ever voted for is Wayne T. Gilchrest, the moderate congressman from the Eastern Shore. "I find myself in a quandary of not wanting to vote for either one," she said.

Townsend does better in the poll among working women than those who don't work outside the home, meaning it will be crucial for the campaign to focus on turnout among women juggling jobs, children and groceries on Election Day.

She has generally avoided talking about her candidacy in terms of gender. She wants to be governor so she can help people, she says, not simply to score a first for women in Maryland politics.

"Basically you have to run for governor for everybody," Townsend said in a recent interview

Yes, Townsend acknowledged, she'll be "breaking through a glass ceiling." But Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski has already demonstrated that Marylanders are willing to elect a woman to statewide office.

"I'm not just here because one woman gets elected governor," Townsend said. "What really matters is what we'll do in office."

Yet for many Townsend supporters, her gender is one of the things they celebrate about her candidacy, one they would love to see her emphasize more.

"It's definitely the right time for a woman," said an exuberant Rayna Goodman of Randallstown, a 31-year-old pricing analyst for a health care company. "It would send the right message about Maryland."

Some women voiced traditional beliefs about the way Townsend and other female politicians would govern.

"Women tend to have a more humanistic point of view," said Gail Mosley of Randallstown, a computer consultant who attended the Woodlawn rally. "They include emotion when they're making decisions, and that's what we need."

Nationally, women tend to be more supportive of Democrats regarding most issues, while men tend to lean more toward Republicans, according to Marie C. Wilson, president of the White House Project, an organization that promotes women role models and political candidates.

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