A STAR was born in the last statewide election campaign, an unlikely star.
Sure, she comes from political royalty. But who would have suspected that Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, once a dowdy and seemingly vapid chatterbox, would have emerged at this stage as a true political beauty queen and the early front-runner in the 2002 race for governor?
Gov. Parris Glendening was one of the first to recognize this dramatic transformation. He capitalized on Ms. Townsend's high poll ratings, mentioning her name repeatedly at every campaign stop last year.
He's continued that approach since then. And he has enlarged Ms. Townsend's portfolio, putting her choice for the key job of economic development secretary in the new cabinet. When the governor briefed the press on his legislative agenda on Thursday, his lieutenant governor was at his side.
Elevating Ms. Townsend to a co-governorship role has fueled speculation that Mr. Glendening seeks to secure a place in Washington.
If Ms. Townsend's family -- especially Uncle Ted Kennedy -- uses its contacts to find a federal spot for Mr. Glendening after the next presidential election, Ms. Townsend would succeed him as governor in midterm, giving her a huge edge in the 2002 election.
She certainly was the surprise of the 1998 campaign. Ms. Townsend blossomed into an energetic, aggressive campaigner with a sure grasp on how to whip up a crowd. Her boss -- stiff and wooden -- paled by comparison. She also proved an excellent fund-raiser.
Ms. Townsend slowly has learned how to govern, and has polished her campaign skills. All those appearances at elementary schools paid off as this state's soccer moms remembered on Election Day which elected leader had visited their kids' classrooms.
But it was also a triumph of Ms. Townsend's strategy to establish her bona fides in key areas of middle-class concern -- public safety, juvenile violence and drugs. She has created some imaginative approaches and captured the public's attention.
Not only is this an area of interest for her, but it also is a way to mute complaints about "those Kennedy liberals." Cutting the crime rate, lowering illegal drug use and coming to grips with juvenile delinquency appeals to conservative voters. That's a must if she wants to become governor in 2002.
Her likely rivals that year, Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger and Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan, are betting Ms. Townsend's approval ratings can't hold up as she gets embroiled in more volatile issues.
After all, her one brush with a major legislative proposal -- a plan to create a "truth in sentencing" overhaul of state penal laws -- proved an embarrassment. It was pummeled in legislative committees and then decisively rejected.
But that was early in her state tenure. How she performs on the economic development front and on pushing for passage of administration bills will be closely watched and chronicled.
Mr. Duncan and Mr. Ruppersberger are also hoping Ms. Townsend's inclination to embrace Great Society social safety-net programs will emerge. She's not a moderate, they will claim; she's still a Kennedy liberal, which is a bit too liberal for a state of middle temperament like Maryland.
Ms. Townsend does have a significant disadvantage running against the other likely candidates: No core political base.
Yet Ms. Townsend did well last year appealing to women, liberals and other groups. In a Democratic primary, she may have enough star power and achievements in office to overcome the more traditional campaigns that the other likely candidates would run.
That's far in the future. In another week, Ms. Townsend will take the oath of office as Maryland's governor-in-waiting. She will be much more in the public spotlight -- and more open to public criticism.
Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.
Pub Date: 1/10/99