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Watching as a Race She Can't Lose Slips Away

Maryland: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has the name, money and party affiliation to become governor. But it may not be enough.

September 01, 2002|JOHANNA NEUMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BETHESDA, Md. — She was supposed to carry the power and promise of Camelot to a new generation. Poised to glide to the governor's office in Maryland, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend had everything--the name, the money, the connections--to carry on the dream that died when her father, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in 1968.

And, in a state where voter registration is Democratic by a 2-1 margin and the election is more than two months away, she still could make history, becoming the first female governor of Maryland and the first Kennedy to hold executive office since her uncle John F. Kennedy was president.

But what has stunned Maryland insiders, at the Capitol in Annapolis, in key precincts in Baltimore's more gritty areas and in Bethesda's tony suburbs of Washington, is how far and how quickly the candidate known as KKT has fallen.

"This is all about KKT," said Blair Lee, the son and grandson of Maryland politicians, and now a newspaper columnist for the Montgomery County Journal. "It's her race to lose, and she's doing it."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 13, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 6 inches; 230 words Type of Material: Correction
Maryland governor--A Sept. 1 story in Section A about Maryland gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend incorrectly reported that President Reagan pardoned a former Maryland governor, Marvin Mandel, who was convicted of fraud. In fact, Reagan commuted Mandel's prison sentence after he had served 19 months of a three-year term. The U.S. Supreme Court years later let stand a lower court decision overturning the conviction.

Having served eight years in the largely ceremonial post of lieutenant governor, Townsend--married to a professor at St. John's College in Annapolis and the mother of four daughters--has been the architect of her own fall, from a 15-percentage-point lead in January to leads of 3 and 7 percentage points in two recent polls.

She is not a natural campaigner, stumbling on the small words that matter most in politics. Campaigning among Latinos, she coined the word "Hispanish." Introducing her running mate, Adm. Charles Larson, she called him Ambassador Lawson. And the winning horse at the Preakness, War Emblem, became, in her speech, War Monger.

Far more damaging, in a state where 31% of the population is black, is that she passed over qualified black candidates for lieutenant governor, selecting instead a white, retired admiral who had been a registered Republican only weeks earlier. The strategy was based on an assumption that the left wing of the Democratic Party would stay with her while she courted more conservative voters in the middle. The move backfired a few days later when her likely Republican opponent, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., selected as his running mate Michael Steele, a graduate of Georgetown University Law School and an African American who chairs the Maryland Republican Party.

But the greatest hurdle Townsend faces may be generational. Sharesse DeLeaver, a 27-year-old African American who serves as Ehrlich's deputy communications director, noted that the era when many voters kept pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy on their mantels has passed, that concerns about civil rights have given way to middle-class interests in schools and crime.

"There are hundreds of thousands of voters in Maryland who don't remember her father or uncle," political scientist Matthew Crenson said. "She is more on her own than the Democratic leadership thought when they rallied behind her."

But Townsend is not without resources. Party loyalists have bolstered her campaign staff with seasoned pros, and some observers say Townsend is getting better on the stump, likely the result of speech training.

And, she has a considerable campaign war chest: $6 million to Ehrlich's $3 million. Democratic media expert Bob Shrum, hired by the campaign as an advisor, is expected to launch a negative assault on Ehrlich after the Sept. 10 primary.

"She's going to crucify him with ads," said Lee, the Journal columnist. "There's nothing wrong with her campaign that $3 million of negative ads can't cure. Everybody in Annapolis is waiting for it."

The Townsend campaign declined to comment.

If Townsend does turn negative, it might be a sign that she is her father's daughter. Bobby Kennedy had a reputation as a rough-edged liberal, a prosecutor and congressional investigator who rooted out Communists and mob figures and who later, as attorney general to President Kennedy, went after Cuba's Fidel Castro and the bigoted governors of the pre-Voting Rights Act South.

Townsend is hampered by other ghosts as well.

No lieutenant governor has ever won election to governor in Maryland, although Lee's father, Blair Lee III, became acting governor after Marvin Mandel was convicted of mail fraud (he was later pardoned by President Reagan) and stripped of office.

She is tethered to an eight-year incumbent, Parris Glendening, whose popularity has been sinking ever since he left his wife of 24 years, taking up with a former deputy chief of staff. In January, the 59-year-old governor married 35-year-old Jennifer Crawford; she gave birth to their daughter last month.

And the FBI is investigating allegations of beatings at Maryland's boot camps for young juvenile offenders. The allegations sparked headlines and legislative investigations at a time when Townsend was responsible for oversight of the state's juvenile justice system.

Lee, who said he has spent much time watching the candidate and enjoyed several long lunches with her, believes KKT got into politics to carry on her father's legacy. He also thinks that after easily winning the Sept. 10 Democratic primary (as Ehrlich also is expected to do on the GOP side), Townsend could well lose the general election in November because voters detect a borrowed mission.

"She is a nice, honest person, but I'm convinced she is in politics for all the wrong reasons," he said. "She's doing it out of a sense of family duty. And the problem with her campaign is that voters sense she is just not in her element."

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