Townsend, Ehrlich have work ahead, experts, voters say

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Emerging from this week's primaries for governor victorious if slightly bruised, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. must work harder to define themselves and their campaigns, voters and political experts said yesterday.

"Neither candidate has developed a compelling theme, aside from a generic message of leadership opportunity," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster.

Townsend skated past only token opposition in Tuesday's primary, but some voters used the opportunity to register displeasure.

One in five Democratic voters who cast ballots selected Robert R. Fustero, a retired grocery clerk from Montgomery County who spent about $1,500 on the race.

A virtual unknown, he won some precincts outright in Baltimore County, and captured more than 40 percent of the vote in Harford and Carroll counties.

Ehrlich, too, suffered a setback.

One of his most visible allies, Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, was defeated in his re-election bid in the 44th District in Baltimore. Mitchell is a leader in the still-emerging Democrats for Ehrlich movement, and his loss could hamper Ehrlich's efforts in the black community.

But Fustero and Mitchell are only minor players who will have virtually no affect on the final outcome of the race. More important to voters, observers say, is how Townsend and Ehrlich articulate where they would lead the state if elected.

Townsend speaks frequently about her prescription drug plan and bringing character education into schools. Ehrlich talks about slot machines at race tracks, and balancing the state budget through 4 percent across-the-board cuts.

None of those issues has resonated with voters.

"I'll vote. I always vote. But I'm not excited about them -- either Ehrlich or Townsend," said Katherine Harris, a member of the Perring Loch Community Organization in Baltimore.

Rachel Shifflett, a registered Democrat and retired school cafeteria employee from Ellicott City, said Townsend has been an unconvincing candidate so far.

"Between now and November, she's going to have to show me something," Shifflett said. "She's going to have to break away from our governor."

Townsend aides say they recognize the campaign shortcomings and can overcome them.

Over the next several weeks, spokesman Peter Hamm said, Townsend will be pressing her positions more forcefully.

"We're going to lay out very completely the lieutenant governor's vision for her first term as governor," Hamm said. "What she is going to do. What her priorities are going to be."

Ehrlich, too, plans several policy announcements, although some of them have been promised for weeks and have yet to materialize.

Ehrlich campaign workers say they will release detailed positions on juvenile justice, the state budget, and mental health and health care.

Republican strategist Kevin Igoe said Ehrlich "has been correct to this point" in staying relatively quiet while Townsend fielded criticism about her campaign staff and other issues. Now, he said, the message must change.

"There comes a point in time where he will have to enunciate a positive policy message about how he can improve people's lives," Igoe said.

But apart from policy positions, strategy remains important.

Townsend's next challenge involves welding together Maryland's Democratic base, including winning back the 105,000 votes that went to Fustero.

Democrats in Prince George's County had been consumed by a five-way primary for county executive. The bruising 8th District congressional race stole attention in Montgomery County.

Townsend did some damage herself in an effort to broaden her appeal; she selected a former Republican as a running mate, and did little to embrace liberal constituencies such as environmentalists and African-Americans early on.

But now she wants the Democratic Party to coalesce around her. Unity rallies are planned this week, including one on Saturday in Baltimore during which Montgomery County Councilman Isiah Leggett, a prominent black leader whom Townsend passed over for running mate, will be introduced as chairman of a statewide coordinated Democratic campaign effort.

"You'll see a new unity within the Democratic Party," Townsend predicted last week.

Her campaign yesterday dismissed the significance of the Fustero vote, noting that Townsend's 80 percent of the primary vote is higher than the 54 percent Gov. Parris N. Glendening received during his first run in 1994, or the 62 percent William Donald Schaefer received in 1986.

Several leading Democrats said Townsend can preserve support by relying on traditional party themes.

"If we stick to the issues that show where Democrats stand on education, the environment, health care and the economy, Kathleen is going to get the support of the voters," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who considered challenging Townsend in a primary: "What the lieutenant governor needs to do, and I think she can do it well, is start talking to the base of this state, start talking to people whose families are now in recovery, start talking to people whose kids now have better opportunities in school or more after-school opportunities...If she does it, I look forward to her turning this situation around."

But Ehrlich supporters sense the GOP campaign is making inroads among Democrats -- especially those not fond of the current administration.

In the weeks ahead, the GOP is expected to talk about a perceived culture of corruption in Annapolis, a culture in which Townsend has thrived during the past eight years.

The U.S. attorney's office is investigating whether the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention -- overseen by Townsend -- used federal grant money for political ends. Federal investigators are also looking at conditions inside juvenile justice facilities, another Townsend responsibility.

Investments made by a Glendening ally managing state pension funds are under the scrutiny of a third probe.

If Ehrlich has his say, voters will think twice before electing another Democrat governor.

"I'm not that pleased with the Democratic Party overall," said Tywanna Dorsey, 46, an office manager from Woodlawn. She said she plans to vote for Ehrlich in the fall.

"Maryland needs to be shaken up," she said. "It's a new day. It's a new time. ... I think a lot of people are going to think my way."

Fustero is one of them.

"I think a lot of the ones who voted for me are sending a message," he said. "They are fed up with the status quo."

Sun staff writers Howard Libit, Laura Vozzella and Sarah Koenig contributed to this article.

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