First of two articles.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend arrived in Annapolis in 1984 as a young lawyer working for the House Appropriations Committee, and promptly broke the rules.

Townsend was trying to persuade the state to yank its investments from corporations operating in South Africa. She had traveled to Johannesburg a few months before taking the job, forming strong views she couldn't keep to herself.

"The appropriations committee members were discussing it, and there was a legislator who I thought said something inappropriate and dumb," Townsend recalled recently. "I stood up and said, 'You're wrong.' And I argued with him."

It was a violation of a cardinal principle of legislatures everywhere. Staffers don't correct elected officials. Not in front of colleagues.

"He was so angry. I was called into his office," she said. "And I remember that for a week, two weeks, I was so mortified. How could I have not understood my place?"

Townsend's role in life, clearly, was not to be a voiceless consultant to a legislative committee. She spent only a year on the job. But it was the beginning of a varied public service career that she hopes will lead her to a much higher place: governor of her adopted state.

Townsend has spent the better part of two decades molding her passion into a string of achievements, from launching the first statewide student service initiative to creating an innovative crime-fighting program that concentrates resources in the neediest neighborhoods.

As an assistant state attorney general, a candidate for congress, an education department employee and a lieutenant governor, Townsend has frequently bucked conventions and forged her own rules.

She's better now at suppressing the enthusiasm that led to that confrontation in a House of Delegates meeting room. But those who know her say she has not abandoned the idealism that she blends with erudite philosophy, Judeo-Christian spirituality, a dose of flinty pragmatism and a compassionate personal touch that has earned her many loyal supporters.

"She has real core values and a moral compass," says her husband, David Townsend. "And that has expressed itself more and more freely as she has taken on more and more leadership roles."

A woman who conquered a fear of heights to climb Mount Rainier as a 50th birthday commemoration, Townsend, 51, seeks to reach another summit. As a candidate for governor against Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., she is fighting to distinguish herself from unpopular Gov. Parris N. Glendening, to overcome the perception that Democrats have controlled Annapolis too long.

The latest poll for The Sun showed her at a disadvantage, trailing Ehrlich 44-48 percent.

The eldest of 11 children of Ethel and Robert Kennedy, Townsend learned public service at the dinner table, where children were obliged to participate in discussions of current events.

When her uncle, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated, her father penned a note to his 12-year-old daughter that read: "As the oldest of the Kennedy grandchildren, you have a particular responsibility. ... Be kind to others, and work for your country."

Kathleen attended schools in Montgomery County and Putney, Vt., and graduated from Harvard University, where she met her husband, a Ph.D. candidate and one of her teachers.

After the wedding, David and Kathleen Townsend moved to New Mexico, where David taught at the Santa Fe campus of St. John's College. Townsend enrolled at the University of New Mexico Law School and received her degree in 1978.

Then it was David's turn: The family moved east so he could attend Yale Law School. Townsend clerked for U.S. District Judge A. David Mazzone, who would later oversee a landmark case resulting in the cleanup of Boston Harbor.

'Moral teachings'