- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 28, 2002

To call these difficult times for Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (known as KKT to friend and foe alike) would be a huge understatement: Every week seems to bring another nugget of political bad news for Mrs. Townsend. Just a few days ago, for example, the Maryland Troopers Association, an organization of 2,400 active and retired state troopers, endorsed her likely Republican foe, Rep. Robert Ehrlich. It is the first time in the group's 23-year history that the MTA has endorsed a Republican for governor.
But the worst news for Mrs. Townsend by far has to be her erosion in the polls. Earlier this year, polls showed her anywhere from 13-15 points ahead of Mr. Ehrlich. A new Baltimore Sun-Gazette newspapers poll shows that her once-formidable lead over Mr. Ehrlich is virtually gone. According to the survey of 1,200 registered voters, conducted July 17-19, Mrs. Townsend's lead among likely voters has slipped to just 47-44 percent, with the remainder undecided.
Nearly twice as many voters say they have an unfavorable impression of KKT now, compared to 18 months ago, the Sun reported. Mrs. Townsend suffered the most serious erosion of political support in Baltimore. In January, 72 percent of voters in the city said they would vote for her; the new poll found that her support there had fallen to 58 percent. During the same period, she dropped from 90 percent support from black voters in the state to just 77 percent.
Earlier this year, many Democrats thought that Mrs. Townsend, running with a huge fundraising advantage in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by roughly 2-1, was virtually unbeatable. "Townsend has had a good year with a lot of publicity, most of it positive. She's gotten rid of her Democratic opponents," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research of Bethesda, the organization that conducted the poll. "On the surface, you would think that everything is going right. Below the surface, something more seems to be going on."
"You can argue that it's still summertime and people aren't paying attention to the campaign yet, but her slippage among Democrats and her base so early in the campaign is a bad sign," said Matthew Crenshaw, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor. "Her core supporters are drifting away."
A large part of the problem seems to be that a growing number of Marylanders have become skeptical of high taxes and big government that they associate with Mrs. Townsend. The same Sun-Gazette survey found that, when asked how to close the state's $900 million budget deficit, Marylanders, by a 45-30 margin, favored cutting programs to raising taxes. The poll also found that voters believe that Mr. Ehrlich would do a better job tackling crime than Mrs. Townsend. "The lieutenant governor talks about it, but she hasn't done a thing," said one disaffected Democratic respondent.
Actually, that's not quite true. Mrs. Townsend has "done" things about crime. The problem is that, too often, they've been the wrong things. Her supposed efforts to reform the state juvenile-justice system by setting up "boot camps" proved to be a fiasco, resulting in the state paying millions of dollars to pay legal settlements to young criminals who had been preyed upon by sadistic guards. Her claim to support the death penalty while also supporting a moratorium on executions in the state (despite the lack of evidence that any of the murderers on Maryland's death row have been wrongly convicted) understandably adds to voter cynicism and mistrust not just toward Mrs. Townsend, but toward government in general.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Townsend and her allies seem to be responding in the worst possible way: by misrepresenting Mr. Ehrlich's record in Congress. This week, for example, they tried to depict Mr. Ehrlich as "too conservative" for Maryland, asserting that he tried to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education (without mentioning that he favored block grants as an alternative) and by suggesting that he is a threat to the Social Security system. The campaign to "define" Bob Ehrlich in the meanest possible way has only just begun.


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