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Race for governor far from decided


ANNAPOLIS -- Conventional wisdom would tell you that it is only logical that Maryland's lieutenant governor would be widely known and well-liked, and that it is only logical that any lieutenant governor would hold a big advantage when matched against likely rivals in trying to ascend to the top spot.

As is so often the case, the conventional wisdom would be wrong.

In fact, the path to the top job in Maryland politics taken by lieutenant governors past is so riddled with potholes that none -- not one -- ever has been elected governor. Only two have tried.

Melvin A. "Mickey" Steinberg, who, despite eight years as president of the Maryland State Senate and eight years as No. 2 to William Donald Schaefer, finished an embarrassing third to Parris Glendening in the 1994 Democratic primary. Mr. Steinberg, based on polling done at the time, was actually unknown to half the electorate a year before that contest.

And Blair Lee, who rose to the governorship after the federal conviction of his patron, former Gov. Marvin Mandel, lost the 1978 primary to Harry Hughes, thought to be so obscure his detractors dubbed him "Harry Who?"

So when a Maryland lieutenant governor's name is known to 91 percent of voters statewide, when she grabs nearly 50 percent of the vote in a four-way primary match-up and when her favorable name identification number is 18 points higher than the total name ID of her nearest rival, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend isn't conforming to the conventional wisdom. She is defying it.

Clearly, Ms. Townsend starts her quest with several advantages, not the least of which is her famous name, which is magic in a Democratic primary.

Ms. Townsend has managed to maintain an excellent relationship with Mr. Glendening (something Mr. Steinberg was unable to do with his boss), who stations her at his side, and sometimes front-and-center, at major events and announcements. Signs on the jetways at BWI Airport read, "Welcome to Maryland -- Parris N. Glendening, Governor. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Lt. Governor." Even taking her political pedigree into account, it is that kind of exposure that builds a lieutenant governor's name identification to the 90 percent level.

But while Ms. Townsend begins the 2002 election cycle with a big head start, our polling shows that the road to the Democratic nomination could be bumpier than one might now imagine.

In addition to the traditional hypothetical match-up of Ms. Townsend and three potential opponents in our latest survey, we asked Democratic primary voters to choose a candidate for governor based, not on their names, but on brief biographical descriptions. Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger, for example, was identified thusly: a candidate who "is a 54-year-old white male who has been county executive in Baltimore County for the past six years."

Mr. Ruppersberger's fortunes changed little in this format, nor did those of Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan improve. But voters responded in great numbers to a candidate who "is a 49-year-old African American male who has been county executive of Prince George's County for the past six years." This candidate, Wayne Curry, jumped from 8 percent in the traditional, garden-variety match-up, to 26 percent in the candidate profile contest.

Mr. Curry strikes directly at Ms. Townsend's natural base, the African American vote. Her share of the black vote dropped from 61 percent to 22 percent when candidate profiles were read, while Mr. Curry's share soared from 16 percent to 67 percent. African Americans comprise about one-third of a Democratic primary electorate in Maryland, so this is no small matter.

While Ms. Townsend holds onto the advantage in the four-way candidate profile mock election, it is clear that some of her current support is soft and that she will not be able to simply sit on her big lead in name identification and cruise over the goal line.

If someone fitting the description of Wayne Curry decides to add some spice to this contest, the 2002 election could turn out to be very interesting indeed.

Patrick Gonzales and Carol Arscott are independent pollsters based in Annapolis. The survey cited in this article can be found on their Web site at www.garesarch.com.

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