On the day a new poll showed her 15-point lead in Maryland's gubernatorial race had slipped to a virtual tie, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend vowed yesterday to start focusing attention on the record of her Republican opponent, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
"We have a very different record on education and education funding, on health care and health care funding, on the environment and obviously on job creation," Townsend told reporters in Woodlawn.
Townsend insisted she is not troubled by the new poll conducted by Potomac Survey Research for The Sun, despite seeing her lead shrink to 3 percentage points and learning that the percentage of Maryland voters who view her negatively has almost doubled in 18 months.
"I think this is to be expected in the campaign," the Democratic lieutenant governor said. "I'm really excited about the opportunity to get our record out and his record out and see what our differences mean for the state of Maryland."
Ehrlich countered that Townsend's remarks were evidence of a rattled candidate on the defensive. "She's going straight negative because she can't sell herself," he said. "It sounds like they're in meltdown mode. I would point out her record, but there is none. She's never voted on anything."
And at a $2,000-per-person Ehrlich fund-raiser in Washington last night, congressional Republicans celebrated the poll results as a sign that he can be Maryland's first GOP governor in more than three decades.
"Now, I hear he's got a poll," former Rep. Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana said to Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan. "I think we've got a winner."
When House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois arrived at the party near the Capitol a few minutes later, Camp said in his ear: "Have you heard? Three points. Isn't it wonderful?"
But the lieutenant governor all-but-ignored the poll results as she spoke to 800 senior citizens at a lunchtime crab feast at Martin's West sponsored by the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks. Instead, she immediately launched into a comparison of her record with that of Ehrlich.
"I also deeply believe that we need to preserve Social Security," Townsend said. "My opponent has voted to privatize Social Security and put it in the stock market. Have you seen the stock market recently? Do you think that's a good idea?
"Neither do I. Stick with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and she will stick with you."
Ehrlich said he was unaware of having voted on legislation to privatize Social Security, though he said he backs a plan to permit workers to invest up to 10 percent of their Social Security taxes into 401(k)-like plans. An Ehrlich spokesman also questioned criticism from an administration that oversaw the state pension system's $3 billion stock market loss last year.
Townsend told reporters that she does not intend to attack Ehrlich - merely to show differences in their records.
"I think if we just discuss his record, he may see it as negative," she said. "I see it as really discussing what our records are, what our vision is, what our future plans for the state shall be."
Townsend indicated that she would spotlight the Republican congressional votes in the mid-1990s to disband the U.S. Department of Education, as well as Ehrlich's record on gun control and support from the National Rifle Association.
"I think this is really a choice between a person who understands the importance of education and making sure every child can succeed and a person who voted against education funding," Townsend said. "You'll see how he voted consistently with the NRA. You'll see how he voted against education funding. You'll be able to see there's a real difference."
Ehrlich defended his congressional record on education, saying he planned to run on it as he has in the past. He said that by voting with the GOP to eliminate the Department of Education, he sought to free $1.3 billion from the Washington bureaucracy for states and local school systems.
Records supplied by his staff acknowledge that he voted for a 4 percent cut in Head Start in 1995, but has since voted seven times for an increase in Head Start funding. "Yes, I voted repeatedly to take money out of bureaucracy and put it into classrooms: guilty," Ehrlich said.
He expected to raise $150,000 to $200,000 at last night's event, which was sponsored by House Republican leadership and was described as a congressional farewell celebration.
Many who attended indicated they were interested in the race because they spend time in the Washington area, reading newspapers stories and watching television reports on it.
Rep. Mark Foley of Florida told the crowd that he recently was on the Eastern Shore looking for a house to purchase when he saw many Ehrlich bumper stickers "and not one Kathleen Kennedy Kennedy Kennedy Townsend sticker."
"It's time a real Marylander ran the state of Maryland," Foley said.
With the race tightening to 47 percent to 44 percent, both campaigns are saying they'll devote even more energy to capturing every endorsement they can.
Today, Townsend is expected to win the support of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, while Ehrlich is expected to be endorsed by the Maryland Troopers Association. The troopers group, which has 2,300 active and retired members, is separate from the labor union, which joined in the statewide Fraternal Order of Police endorsement of Townsend.