- The Washington Times - Monday, September 16, 2002

ANNAPOLIS To win a statewide election in Maryland, Republicans need a year when everything breaks just right, and party leaders are increasingly confident that 2002 is one of those years.
In Rep. Robert L.. Ehrlich Jr., they believe they have a candidate with the crossover appeal to centrist and conservative Democrats that Republicans must have to win in Maryland.
Republican leaders see President Bush's continuing personal popularity as a boost to Mr. Ehrlich's chances, and they believe large numbers of voters will buy into their message that because of their entrenched power Maryland Democrats have become too arrogant and it is time for a change.
But perhaps most importantly, Republicans think the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, has weaknesses they can exploit in the general election campaign.
Their confidence level was ratcheted up a notch on Tuesday when 20 percent of Democratic voters rejected Mrs. Townsend in favor of Robert Fustero, a political unknown who didn't campaign.
"I think that a lot of Democrats chose to vote against Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. They knew what they were doing," said Paul Ellington, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party.
Mrs. Townsend "has a problem with her base," he said. "Republicans, on the other hand, are a unified party coming out of the primary."
Paul Schurick, Mr. Ehrlich's campaign spokesman, said Tuesday "was a bad day for Kathleen. Her own party is turning its back on her."
The Townsend campaign argues that the significance of the vote for Mr. Fustero is being overplayed.
The lieutenant governor said she was happy with the outcome because she received a larger percentage of the Democratic primary vote than any other candidate for governor in the past 20 years.
Democrats also believe many of the Fustero voters will support Mrs. Townsend on Nov. 5.
Maryland pollster Keith Haller of Potomac Inc. said voters often use primaries "as a means of protest or sending a message," and primary results don't necessarily carry over to general elections. But he said Mrs. Townsend "has work to do with moderate to conservative Democrats, especially those in the Baltimore region."
She also must do more to fire up Democratic troops and "infuse Democrats with a greater sense of urgency about this governor's race," Mr. Haller said.
Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, noted that even though Mr. Fustero received just 20 percent of the Democratic vote, Mrs. Townsend "got roughly 440,000 votes, and the person who really is her opponent [Mr. Ehrlich] got about 218,000 votes. That puts her way ahead."
He also said Mrs. Townsend will benefit from the fact that the Democratic primary was not a divisive one and that there are not a lot of bruised feelings to soothe.
James Gimpel, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park, said it is questionable how many of the Democrats who voted for Mr. Fustero will turn out for the general election.
"Are these folks going to turn out for Ehrlich in November? Some of them might, and others may not turn out at all," he said. "Either one of those scenarios is bad for her."
Republicans believe Mrs. Townsend's close association with Gov. Parris N. Glendening during the past eight years will drive some voters into Mr. Ehrlich's camp.
Mr. Glendening's approval rating with Maryland voters, never high, has declined substantially since he was re-elected in 1998.
Mr. Gimpel said Mrs. Townsend, who has been a loyal lieutenant governor, may find it difficult to separate herself from Mr. Glendening after working with him so closely and being such an integral part of the administration.
Another potential problem for the lieutenant governor is the federal investigation into grants issued by the Governor's Office of Crime Prevention and Control, which has been under her supervision.
Mrs. Townsend has dismissed the probe as politically motivated. It was conducted by Thomas DiBiagio, a Republican U.S. attorney who was appointed on Mr. Ehrlich's recommendation.
She argues that nothing improper or illegal has happened with the grants, but continuing publicity about the investigation makes it easier for Republicans to sell their message that Democrats have become arrogant because they have held power too long.
Mrs. Townsend still has some advantages, including a lot of money to spend to promote her candidacy and attack Mr. Ehrlich's voting record in Congress.
She also has a powerful base of support in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore city, the three most populous areas of the state.
Mr. Haller said the Townsend campaign will have to concentrate on getting a big vote in those three regions to offset Mr. Ehrlich's advantage in the rest of the state.
"The stars could never be better aligned for Republicans and Bob Ehrlich," Mr. Haller said.
"Whether Bob Ehrlich can position himself as a moderate and take advantage of all these opportunities, it's still way too early to tell," he said.
"But the Republicans will never have a better opportunity than they do now 60 days away from the final vote."


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