- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Republican gubernatorial nominee and U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that his Democratic opponent's new television ads in Montgomery County attacking his gun policies had "crossed the line" by politicizing the unsolved sniper slayings in the Washington area.
"There is a line, though, that most campaigns generally do not cross. It appears that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's campaign has decided to cross it," Mr. Ehrlich said after speaking at the Women's Community Club of Kensington.
Lt. Gov. Townsend, the Democratic nominee whose father and uncle were assassinated by gunmen, later said that gun control has been a key issue in her campaign since before the sniper attacks.
"I have had a lot of tragedy in my life because of guns, and I know the pain of losing somebody. I don't want other Marylanders to feel that pain," Mrs. Townsend said after signing a pact with black political leaders at a news conference in Baltimore.
It remains unclear whether the issue of gun control will sway Montgomery County voters a pivotal voting bloc in deciding a governor's race that has been overshadowed for nearly two weeks by the serial sniper.
A poll to be released today will show that the governor's race is still a dead heat, although Mrs. Townsend has pulled ahead of Mr. Ehrlich within the poll's margin of error. It also will reveal that gun control has become a more important issue for voters, but a majority of voters believe TV campaign ads on gun are inappropriate in light of the shooting spree.
"The gun control issue bumped up on the radar screen. Where it was nonexistent, single digits before, now it is double digits," said Larry Harris, a pollster for Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc., which conducted the poll for WRC-TV Channel 4 and the Journal newspapers.
Mr. Harris said that having a serial sniper on the loose was bound to hurt Mr. Ehrlich among voters who don't have an allegiance to either the gun-control or gun-rights lobbies.
Nevertheless, he said, Mrs. Townsend has to avoid appearing as though she is manipulating the tragic shootings for political gain.
"She's got to be careful," Mr. Harris said. "When you have a sniper out there, it certainly adds a new dimension to the way voters think about the issue."
Sharon Constantine, 48, was outraged to see Townsend campaigners near the scene of the first fatal shooting as she drove to work in Wheaton the day after the attack.
"How sad that was that they would take advantage of me," she said at the Women's Club.
Mr. Harris also said that Mrs. Townsend's slight gain over Mr. Ehrlich, as well as an increase in Mr. Ehrlich's negative rating, indicate that Mrs. Townsend's recent barrage of attack ads were working.
"The negative ads are beginning to take their toll," he said.
The new ad that the Townsend campaign began airing in Montgomery County over the weekend cites Mr. Ehrlich's failing grades from advocacy groups for gun control, education and environmental protection.
In a brief segment of the ad, Mr. Ehrlich's face is displayed next to images of assault rifles and pistols while the announcer says: "He voted against banning assault weapons and cheap handguns."
Townsend campaign spokesman Peter Hamm said that the ad remained true to the themes of the campaign and highlighted Mr. Ehrlich's pro-gun voting record.
"We think it is totally appropriate in the context of this campaign," he said.
Mr. Ehrlich said that the ad demonstrates that Mrs. Townsend's campaign was unwilling to keep its earlier promise not to politicize the shooting spree.
"It appears now that they changed their mind and [they] are trying to politicize a terrorist environment," he said. "If a campaign wants to politicize terrorism, they do it at their own risk."
Mr. Ehrlich, whose internal campaign polls show that he has lost two percentage points to Mrs. Townsend, said he was not worried about the current jostling for position within the margin of error.
"The lieutenant governor has gone harsh negative for 10 weeks now, and it's still an even race. For a Republican in Maryland, that's a good trend," Mr. Ehrlich said. "We are pretty surprised and happy with the lack of slippage because she has been so negative now for so long."

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