ANNAPOLIS – The mud has been slung, the spin has been spun and the campaigning is all but done. It’s show time.
In a gubernatorial race that has garnered national attention, Democrat Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Ehrlich will throw themselves on the mercy of Maryland voters Tuesday in what should be, if polls are any indication, one of the closest races in Maryland history.
The last two gubernatorial elections had a 61 percent voter turnout, said Linda Lamone, Maryland State Board of Elections administrator. This time, the board is hoping for 65 percent, she said.
“It would appear, from all the attention this race is getting in the media,” said Lamone, “that there will be a greater turnout.”
A Thursday Mason-Dixon Polling and Research poll put the two in a statistical dead heat.
That poll is a continuation of a trend begun in August, of Ehrlich slowly eroding Townsend’s lead.
In late September, he surpassed her by 3 percentage points. Since then, it has been back and forth between the two candidates.
Each party’s top names have turned out for the candidates, with Ehrlich gaining the first national endorsement: President George W. Bush. On Sunday, Ehrlich will entertain former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Townsend responded with rallies featuring former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and former Vice President Al Gore.
There was no misunderstanding the tone of this election. It was contentious from the start, with Townsend throwing the first punches. Ehrlich’s congressional voting record, specifically his record on education and gun control, came under attack.
Townsend criticized Ehrlich for cuts to public education that he voted for in 1996. They also criticized him for receiving campaign funds from the National Rifle Association.
The Ehrlich campaign responded with shots at Townsend’s connection to the state’s looming $1.7 billion deficit accumulated during Gov. Parris Glendening’s administration and the Townsend-backed juvenile boot camps, where inmates were reportedly beaten and abused.
Both candidates contended for the African-American vote, in a race where every vote is likely to be vital.
Ehrlich, who chose African-American Michael Steele as his running mate, has gained a considerable number of black leaders’ endorsements in a state where black voters have voted overwhelmingly Democratic.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People endorsed Townsend, and the lieutenant governor has held rallies at Coppin State College and Bowie State University, both historically black colleges.
The Townsend campaign rebuked Ehrlich for not being in touch with the needs of the African-American community, while the Ehrlich camp charged the Glendening-Townsend administration failed the black community with deficient schools and rising violence (Maryland is ranked third in the nation for violent crime, according to FBI crime reports).
The issue hit the forefront at the candidates’ only televised debate in late September at Morgan State University, sponsored by the NAACP.
Ehrlich said he is comfortable working outside his “comfort zone” and going to places unfamiliar to the Republican Party in reference to the Maryland black community.
“This is not Star Trek,” Townsend responded. “African-Americans are not aliens.”
Meanwhile, Townsend has hurt her cause with a tendency to misspeak, and political analysts expected more Townsend malapropos during the debate. But Townsend surprised the audience, going toe-to-toe with Ehrlich on the issues and tossing out witty analogies.
However, Townsend still has had a few slips of the tongue. She erred at Thursday’s rally featuring Gore and her uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., at Bowie State.
“It is great to be at Coppin State University,” Townsend said. The statement drew a few groans and boos from the Bowie State crowd.
“Well, after all, I don’t know the difference between a touchdown and a football,” said Townsend, once she realized her error. The reference was to a previous slip when she referred to the Baltimore Ravens scoring a “football” in the Super Bowl.
“I think Kathleen is great, just as long as she doesn’t say anything,” said John Thomas, a Townsend supporter from Oxon Hill who attended the rally. “I think she’s a truly virtuous person.”
Ehrlich’s call for slot machines at racetracks, a key item in the budget plan he released shortly before the debate, has also commanded a significant part of the gubernatorial discussion.
Townsend released her budget plan the next day, calling his slot machine idea unrealistic and planning for reallocation of funds from various departments and programs to fix the deficit.
Crime and justice issues were highlighted after a sniper killed 10 people in the greater Washington area during a three-week span in October. Two people are in custody in the attacks.
Townsend criticized Ehrlich’s opposition to gun control, while calling for more weapons to be “fingerprinted” through ballistic testing. She also called for more handgun restrictions.
Ehrlich maintained his stance on “common sense” laws concerning assault rifles, gun registration and illegal handguns. He favors Project EXILE, a plan to ban bail and plea-bargains for those who commit crimes with guns and to impose mandatory prison sentences.
Analysts say it remains to be seen how Townsend’s place in the current administration will play at the polls.
“When the governor had relatively strong personal ratings a couple of years ago, she really hitched her wagon to his,” said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon. “Now that Glendening’s popularity has declined, she has tried to disassociate herself from him. Voters aren’t buying it.” – 30 – CNS-11-1-02