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IN SOME WAYS, Gov. Parris Glendening's eight years in Annapolis will not be a hard act to follow, largely because of the moral and ethical embarrassments he brought on himself. But in other ways, his tenure will be a difficult one indeed to match, because he had the good fortune to govern in, well, times of good fortune. Those days, for short term or long, are gone.

That is a major reason why the selection of Maryland's next governor is so critical. The state will need someone who can not only balance the budget (as required by law), but who can do so while maintaining the services the state needs to function effectively, improving the quality of life for all Marylanders -- especially for the most vulnerable among us, displaying the leadership skills necessary to instill confidence both within the state and among outside investors, and representing the values and principles that have served as worthy guides to Maryland in the past.

After much deliberation, The Sun believes Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the candidate who can best achieve those goals.

And make no mistake: That deliberation occurred not because of a lack of faith in the ability of Ms. Townsend to steer the ship of state, but rather as a response to the gravity of the task and to this newspaper's desire to contribute to a political shake-up in Annapolis by supporting a Republican candidate for the top job. But change for the sake of change hardly serves the state's best interests; Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s task was to prove not just that he would be different, but that he would be better. That he has not done.

On the all-consuming issue of the state's $1.7 billion budget shortfall, for example, Mr. Ehrlich has pinned his hopes on the dubious salvation of slot machines. It's an easy answer to fiscal woes, but not a particularly wise one.

Under the Ehrlich plan, slots would be legalized at the state's four horse-racing tracks. To bring in the $800 million a year Mr. Ehrlich envisions, each track must accommodate at least 2,500 slot machines. If the state's 50 percent take still didn't bring in the $800 million, more slots would have to be squeezed in. It's a ham-handed approach to fiscal responsibility.

What's more, the Ehrlich plan relies on legislation to legalize slots, rather than on a referendum and amendment to the state constitution, which could limit where slots would be legal in the future. That means that down the road, if more revenues are needed, or if enough people just get greedy, acres of slot machines could sprout up elsewhere across the state, changing the character of communities and ushering in a host of problems Marylanders may not choose to deal with. So fundamental and potentially far-reaching a change in state financing and culture should happen only after a referendum and with built-in parameters, if it is to happen at all.

And that's another thing: It may not happen at all, and Mr. Ehrlich has no Plan B to balance the budget. He has, however, vowed to work toward lowering taxes for businesses in the state, despite the fact that studies show Maryland already taxes businesses at rates lower than most comparable states. It's a puzzling promise in these lean times, and one he has never explained.

Ms. Townsend's proposal to come up with $1.7 billion offers no surefire solutions either. But we find it far more palatable because, while it isn't as sexy as Mr. Ehrlich's plan, it has an internal integrity and is grounded in sound fiscal practices. The Townsend plan includes an overall evaluation of government agencies that would eliminate duplicative and wasteful spending, as well as selling a portion of the state's tobacco-fund settlement and transferring or borrowing from existing surplus monies, including part of the state's rainy-day fund. She would extend a current hiring freeze on state workers and implement an early retirement program.

Both candidates' plans fall short of the budget goal by a few million dollars, but if Mr. Ehrlich doesn't get his slots, his falls short by more than twice that. Long-term shortfalls would be even greater. Ms. Townsend's plan is largely a short-term solution, but at least it's based on reality.

There are other differences, as well, that point in Ms. Townsend's favor. Long before a sniper terrorized the state, she supported strong gun-control laws and tough anti-crime efforts. As lieutenant governor, she developed the HotSpots program to concentrate police and other resources in the highest-crime areas; violent crime dropped more than twice as fast as the state average in those areas as a result. As governor, she would expand HotSpots and provide more resources for gun-crime prosecutions.

By contrast, Mr. Ehrlich voted in Congress to lift the ban on assault weapons, and he did not support a proposal that would have increased regulation of "cop killer" bullets. He has called for a review of the state's stringent gun laws, and Ms. Townsend has agreed that's not a bad idea. The difference in philosophy is clear, however: He wants to see which ones aren't working as planned and eliminate them, she wants to take the ones that aren't working and fix them.

There have been numerous references throughout this campaign to Ms. Townsend's verbal "gaffes." Gaffes? How about this one: The Republican candidate for governor, who has supported the gun lobby throughout his career in Congress, who thinks assault weapons should be legal, last week blamed the firebombing deaths of a family of seven in East Baltimore on Ms. Townsend. A gaffe? That's far too polite a word.

Violent crime has tailed off significantly in Maryland during Ms. Townsend's tenure as lieutenant governor. Has that all been her doing? Of course not. But implementation of programs such as HotSpots and Operation Safe Neighborhoods has made a demonstrable difference and, perhaps more important, indicates Ms. Townsend's abiding commitment to seeking solutions to some of the Baltimore area's most intractable problems. Until this gubernatorial campaign, nothing in Mr. Ehrlich's lackluster record indicates any interest in the violent crime problem; indeed, the decline over the last eight years occurred despite his votes in Congress.

And therein lies a fundamental difference between the two candidates. Until his decision to run for governor, very few issues of substance have engaged Mr. Ehrlich; he seems to have no compass but a political one, no vision past an election. The lieutenant governor has a history of taking on challenges and actively working to promote a better society. Sometimes that backfires, as when an ambitious boot camp program for juvenile offenders, part of Ms. Townsend's effort to address years of neglect and mismanagement, went terribly awry. Her intentions were laudable, her guts in taking on a festering problem long ignored by previous administrations admirable. But she trusted the wrong people to run it, and it showed.

Has she learned anything since then? She says yes, and there's evidence to back it up.

One example is her choice of a running mate in retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, a highly principled and deeply respected former head of the Naval Academy whose leadership experience and expertise in management and budget will complement Ms. Townsend's own strengths. By contrast, Mr. Ehrlich's running mate, state GOP chairman Michael S. Steele, brings little to the team but the color of his skin. His choice was a calculated move by Mr. Ehrlich, made all the more crass when it was discovered that Mr. Steele is being paid by the GOP as a "consultant" to run.

Although Mr. Ehrlich has taken great pains to link Ms. Townsend to what he calls the "culture of corruption" in Annapolis, when asked directly to describe that corruption and outline how he would alter it, he was virtually speechless. When asked directly about his close ties to such less-than-savory characters in state politics as Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV and convicted felon Bruce C. Bereano, he could only respond that they were his friends and he was sticking by them. Even his hand-picked choice to streamline state government spent a year and a half in prison on fraud and racketeering charges before his conviction was overturned on a legal technicality. Corruption? Oh, please. He's got a lot of nerve to mention it.

Ms. Townsend surprised -- shocked might not be too strong a word -- a lot of people, Mr. Ehrlich among them, in the televised debate between the two candidates in September. For perhaps the first time in eight years, she allowed herself to step out of the shadow of Governor Glendening and his administration, to speak for herself, to rely on her wits and her principles, to show what she was made of and to give as good as she got. She rocked, and she's been doing an impressive job of building on that strength ever since.

The Sun believes that under the leadership of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, this great state has by far the best chance for healthy change, meaningful reform and a better future for all of its citizens.
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