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Politicians' endorsements for Townsend slow to appear

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens has yet to do it. Ditto for Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry.

Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger has tiptoed around the subject.

With less than six weeks until Election Day, the top officials in three of the Baltimore area's largest jurisdictions have not formally endorsed fellow Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's bid for governor.

Most have tried to offer Townsend support in other ways. Ruppersberger and Curry have attended recent events with Townsend, and Owens has campaigned with Charles R. Larson, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. But the hesitancy of figures such as Owens to fully embrace Townsend illustrates the difficulty that the Democratic nominee has had in building momentum in her race against Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"It's time for Democrats to stand up and be counted," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who formally endorsed Townsend in April and has since encouraged his counterparts in other counties to do likewise. "It's time that all of us work hard for our nominee."

Townsend, the state's two-term lieutenant governor and daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, initially seemed primed for an easy race against Ehrlich, a member of Congress. She led in early polls and fund raising in Maryland, a traditionally Democratic state. But by late summer, Ehrlich had pulled even with or ahead of Townsend in polls.

After a recent strategy session, Democrats such as Rep. Steny H. Hoyer began demanding that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and others do more for the party's nominee.

This week, party faithful gathered at two events in Prince George's County to drum up support for Townsend. In Largo, cheers of "Beat Ehrlich!" filled the hall. In Greenbelt, Townsend beamed as O'Malley lauded her efforts to rid Baltimore of drugs and crime, and improve struggling schools.

"There's a lot at stake in this election," O'Malley -- who had flirted with a bid for governor -- said Monday. "What's at stake is the future of our state, and the future of families in Maryland. ... That's why we need to elect the Democratic Party. People like William Donald Schaefer, people like Joe Curran -- and the next governor of Maryland, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend."

Interpretations vary

Paul E. Schurick, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said Owens and Ruppersberger have staked out positions that reflect what voters are telling them.

"They're hearing just how unpopular [Townsend] is in those counties," he said.

The Townsend campaign is quick to note that Townsend has received rock-solid support from "many, many" elected officials, including Howard County Executive James N. Roby, who endorsed Townsend in May.

And although Ruppersberger and Curry have appeared with Townsend at recent events -- Ruppersberger introduced Townsend at an African-American cultural festival over the weekend in Towson; Curry also spoke at the Largo rally -- they have not been active boosters.

Curry's support has been described as low-key at best. Still, those who know him say he is behind Townsend.

"Yes, he supports her, but it has been understated," said state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Democrat from Prince George's County who attended the Largo event at which State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson, the favorite to replace Curry, endorsed Townsend.

"I don't know if it was an ideological decision to do it that way, or if he is just the guy who is on his way out," said Pinsky, referring to term limits that bar Curry from running for a third term as county executive. "With Wayne, you never know."

According to the Ruppersberger campaign, the county executive, locked in a tough race against Republican Helen Delich Bentley to win the congressional seat being vacated by Ehrlich, has always planned to support the Democratic nominee for governor. However, Ruppersberger, who also seriously considered a bid for governor, is not seeking opportunities to campaign with Townsend.

"This is a federal-level district, and [Ruppersberger's] really got to focus on this race. ... But if the state party -- anybody -- wants to come into the 2nd District and campaign, yeah, sure, he'll support them," said spokesman Rick Binetti.

Ruppersberger said this week, "It's not just about endorsing, but about working with people. ... I am talking to [Townsend's] people."

Owens' response

The Townsend campaign also has received a tepid response from Owens, a Democrat seeking a second term in a county that supported Republican George W. Bush in 2000. Owens has passed up two opportunities to endorse Townsend.

Owens said recently that she wants to make an endorsement announcement, but that the Townsend campaign has failed to include her in the candidate's schedule.

Peter Hamm, Townsend's campaign spokesman, said he was "delighted" to hear that Owens had made up her mind. In June, Townsend officials worried when Owens said she wouldn't attend a local Democratic rally at which the county's legislative delegation turned out to support the nominee.

At the time, Owens aides said that the county executive's political experience made her hesitant to endorse a candidate before the primary. Owens won her election in 1998 though a majority of county political players supported her opponent in the primary.

Owens said Sept. 20 that she has campaigned with Townsend's running mate, Larson, and that therefore she was "doing [her] part."

Political advisers and analysts say that Owens -- as well as other county executives -- might be steering clear of Townsend for fear that voters could vote down party lines rather than for individual candidates.

Ehrlich is considered a strong candidate in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, while Townsend is counting on Democrat-heavy Montgomery and Prince George's counties as well as Baltimore City to win.

"Seeing as how the [Townsend] candidacy is running behind Owens', it would strike me that if anything, [an endorsement by] Owens would be helping the [Townsend] campaign," said Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College. "There are no gains the other way around. I think it is a clearly cautious policy. ... Owens is doing well, so why rock the boat?"

Sun staff writers Andrew A. Green, David Nitkin and Howard Libit contributed to this article.

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