Ehrlich sees close race if campaigns stay clean


BOB EHRLICH, 2nd District congressman who hopes to be Maryland's first Republican governor in 34 years, sat at a table in his Towson campaign headquarters holding a media fete he called "Burgers With Bob."

On a wall behind Ehrlich were two charts that show just what an uphill struggle he faces. To Ehrlich's right was a chart based on a poll that his staffers took of Baltimore metropolitan area voters in February. The results showed a little less than 50 percent of area voters would pick Ehrlich for governor and just over 40 percent his expected opponent in the November general election, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Ehrlich led among whites in the poll, 58 percent to 40 percent, and trailed 8-to-1 among black voters. The candidates split the women's vote.

To Ehrlich's left was a second chart, depicting the results of a statewide January poll. It showed the Republican trailing, 50 percent to 35 percent. Ehrlich had a slight lead among whites and trailed among blacks by as much as he did in the metropolitan poll. Townsend had a slight edge among men and women of all races.

Ehrlich can overcome that deficit - if Marylanders decide they prefer a man who was born here and has blue-collar and working-class roots to a woman born to wealth and privilege whose family thinks its scions are entitled to public office simply because they're the grandchildren of a man named Joe Kennedy.

Speaking to a group of about 10 reporters, Ehrlich commented on that Kennedy mystique and how it might play here in Maryland.

"It's not Bobby Kennedy or Camelot or Massachusetts," Ehrlich said. "It's Kathy Townsend versus Bob Ehrlich."

Indeed, when it comes down to Ehrlich versus Townsend, the contest pits a representative with a record of fiscal restraint against a woman who's part of an administration Ehrlich called an example of "inept, expensive government that's spent outside its means."

Townsend's supporters will probably pass the buck to departing Gov. Parris Spendening - uh, Glendening - on that one. But the very area Townsend had sole responsibility for as lieutenant governor - juvenile justice - is the one in which she's failed miserably.

Such details seldom hurt a Kennedy, however. Townsend's uncle, John F. Kennedy, did virtually nothing in the U.S. Senate for eight years. The country made him president, with the help of some shady Democratic doings in Illinois and Texas during the 1960 election.

Her father, Robert F. Kennedy, was appointed attorney general, although he had very little experience. Together, the Kennedy siblings formed a kind of Brothers Bozo on the matter of James Meredith's attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962. According to William Doyle, author of An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962, the Kennedys' mishandling of a riot that nearly turned into insurrection led to two deaths and scores of injuries.

Bobby Kennedy was later elected to the U.S. Senate from New York. That's been the pattern: When a Kennedy fails, reward him or her with higher office. Many in the nation have been in this backward mode of thinking for years.

That may be why Townsend has so many non-Maryland backers.

"She brings a ton of money from out of state," Ehrlich said.

But those contributors will have no vote come Election Day. It'll be up to Marylanders, who should really be ashamed of themselves if they fall for the same tactics in 2002 that the Democrats pulled in 1998, when they all but slapped a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe on Republican candidate Ellen Sauerbrey.

"What they did in '98 was way over the line," Ehrlich said of the Democrats branding Sauerbrey a racist. "If I let them do to me what they did to Ellen, I'll surely lose."

There may be some black Democrats who are determined not to see that happen this time around. Ehrlich said Del. Tony Fulton, an African-American legislator from Baltimore who has worked with him, said, "I'm not going to let them do to Bobby what they did to Ellen. I was embarrassed."

Fulton says the remark was accurate and adds that the Democrats shouldn't use race-baiting to win elections.

That's because Fulton's a decent man. When the decent folks in this state look at the candidates' records, this gubernatorial race will get really close, really quick. Let's hope Democrats choose to debate issues and qualifications this trip and not play the race card.

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