The Blog

Smiling His Way to an Upset?

Suddenly, Bob Ehrlich is leading one-time cinch Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the Maryland governor's race.

11:00 PM, Oct 31, 2002 • By RACHEL DICARLO
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

LAST FALL, conventional wisdom had Maryland's lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend coasting to the statehouse to succeed Gov. Parris Glendening. She had already raised a campaign war chest and her name recognition was close to 100 percent. Adding to the air of inevitability was the fact that no Maryland Republican has been elected governor since 1968 and only one Kennedy has ever lost a general election (Townsend herself in a failed congressional bid in 1986, when she ran simply as Kathleen Townsend). In September 2001, a Gonzales/Arscott poll confirmed that if the election had been held then, she would have trounced Republican challenger Rep. Bob Ehrlich, 54 to 31 percent.

But as Townsend hit the campaign trail over the summer, her numbers gradually slipped, until yesterday's Baltimore Sun delivered surprising news: Despite her efforts to paint Ehrlich as "too conservative for Maryland" and the recent outcry over his gun-control record in the wake of the sniper attacks, Townsend's early lead has evaporated. She now trails Ehrlich 44 to 48 percent.

Part of the explanation for this stunning turnaround is Townsend's involvement with Glendening, whose popularity plunged after his verbal attacks on popular Maryland comptroller William Donald Schaefer (he'll also leave the next governor with a whopping $1.7 billion budget deficit). And in addition, Glendening received negative attention after he publicly courted the Maryland Board of Regents (all of whom he appointed) for a $350,000 a year job as chancellor of the University of Maryland.

Ehrlich's campaign has wisely taken advantage. "It's Time for a Change" has been the theme of many of his speeches and television commercials, and he employs all manner of outsider rhetoric about the "culture of corruption" and "arrogance of power" in Annapolis.

"I think that's played up for Bobby very, very well," Maryland's Republican Senate minority leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus told the Sun. "One of the things people are getting is that he brings a clean slate. People privately--even Democrats--are very frustrated with Glendening, and some of that has rubbed off on Kathleen. They just don't like him."

"Democrats have led this state into a worsening deficit situation, and [Ehrlich] has connected the problems of corruption," Bethesda-based Pollster Keith Haller said. "He has been consistent and has developed a message that's resonating."

And there's a personality gap, too. While Ehrlich often comes across as gregarious and easygoing, making himself accessible to reporters with informal lunch sessions dubbed "Burgers with Bob," Townsend usually surrounds herself with protective aides and has been known to be gaffe-prone.

"He has charisma and an endearing personality," Haller said. "This is more of a Democratic state, and if he gets elected here, that will have been a factor in his success."

On Tuesday, he just might endear his way to an enormous upset.

Rachel DiCarlo is a staff assistant at The Weekly Standard.