(CNSNews.com) - In a state dominated by Democrats, it shouldn't be so difficult for the Maryland lieutenant governor to convince voters that she should be promoted - especially since the state hasn't elected a Republican governor in 36 years.
But the early lead enjoyed by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend over likely Republican nominee Rep. Bob Ehrlich has slipped from 15 points to just three points, according to a recent public opinion poll. Another recent poll says Kennedy Townsend's lead is seven points.
This, in a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans two to one; term-limited Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening breezed into a second term in 1998 with 55 percent of the vote; Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore carried Maryland with 57 percent in 2000; and the last Republican to win the Maryland governorship was Spiro Agnew in 1966.
Townsend, 50, is even running television ads featuring photographs of her father, Robert F. Kennedy, and boasting of the value her family placed on public service. So why is she struggling in the polls?
"We expected that the polls would tighten a little bit, considering our opponent (Ehrlich) really didn't have statewide recognition" until now, explained Kate Philips, spokesperson for Kennedy-Townsend. "When the last poll was taken, there was no real [Republican] opponent.
"It's natural that once an opponent is named and once they get out there, people start to look at that person, and there's less of a lead naturally," Philips continued. "We do expect that our lead will widen again once our opponent's record is out there."
Ehrlich, 44, who faces two primary opponents, received more good news this week. He received a high profile endorsement from the Maryland Troopers Association on July 25, disappointing Kennedy-Townsend, who has tried to build a reputation as a crime buster.
Paul Ellington, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said the reason for Ehrlich's surge in the polls can't be explained by higher name recognition. Voters have been dissatisfied with the incumbents' performance, he suggested.
"The people of Maryland suffer from a Glendening/Townsend hangover," Ellington said. In the eight years since the Democrats have held office, government spending has gone up over 60 percent and the state now faces a projected budget deficit of over $1 billion, he said.
"The Glendening/Townsend administration has spent a lot of time on legacy building but not much time on the issues that really concern the people of Maryland," said Ellington.
"They came in with Smartgrowth and ... feel-good programs, but they neglected to make investments in the infrastructure," Ellington added.
During the first term, "they built two publicly funded stadiums while kids [were] going to schools in trailers. People of Maryland see through this," Ellington said.
In trying to halt Ehrlich's momentum, Kennedy Townsend has promised to focus more of her campaign talk on Ehrlich's voting record in Congress, which she labels too conservative for Marylanders.
After weeks of focusing more on her own agenda, "now over the next couple of months, we will work to get our opponent's record out," said Philips. "We feel like he (Ehrlich) is not getting it out, and Marylanders deserve to know what he's done and what he plans to do. So that's what we'll focus on now.
"We feel that once Marylanders see Bob Erhlich for who he is, that they will come back and the polls will widen once again."
"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," Kennedy Townsend recently told the Baltimore Sun.
Kennedy Townsend has, for example, blasted Ehrlich for supporting President Bush's plan to "privatize" Social Security.
"He is very far right of what Marylanders believe and how Marylanders live their life," said Philips. "Bob Ehrlich is a wolf in sheep's clothing. He's trying to portray [himself as] a moderate candidate that he is not."
She pointed to the fact that Ehrlich was first elected in 1994 with the "Newt Gingrich Congress." And, she said, "he has voted against education; he's voted against victims' rights; [and] the Children's Defense Fund calls him 'the worst congressman for children.' We believe that his record will speak for itself."
Despite a lifetime 82 percent rating from the American Conservative Union, Ehrlich and his campaign staff are trying to downplay the conservative label, preferring that the GOP candidate be characterized as a moderate.
"She's going straight negative because she can't sell herself," Ehrlich shot back at Kennedy Townsend in the Baltimore Sun. "It sounds like they're in meltdown mode. I would point out her record, but there is none. She's never voted on anything."
Ellington signaled that the GOP offensive would also include an effort to use the Kennedy connection against the lieutenant governor.
While Ehrlich and his African American running mate, Republican Party Chairman Michael S. Steele, both hail from native, blue collar Maryland families, "conversely, their (the Democrats') ticket is a privileged Kennedy and a guy with a naval background who hasn't lived in Maryland that long," said Ellington.
There won't be a repeat of the previous two GOP defeats, in which Republican Ellen Sauerbrey lost to Glendening, said Ehrlich spokesperson Shareese Deleaver.
"Something that happened to Sauerbrey in 1998 is that she was painted as a racist," said Deleaver. "Bob's not going to allow that to happen again, and Michael Steele is not going to allow that to happen. Michael Steele was not chosen as a running mate because he's black, but he is an asset to Bob's campaign; his name on the ticket does bring a lot to the table."
The Maryland primary is scheduled for Sept. 10. Thirty-six states will hold gubernatorial elections in 2002, eleven of which are currently occupied by Democrats and 23 by Republicans.
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