So Much for the Kennedy Mystique

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Maryland gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

Was it only a few months ago that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend seemed so unbeatable that no big-name Democrat would challenge her? With millions pouring into her campaign coffers, Townsend seemed to have a lock on this year's election for Maryland Governor. When Townsend's aunt Eunice Kennedy Shriver threw her a $10-a-head fund raiser last year, traffic backed up for more than a mile, as 5,000 people clamored for an afternoon of Kennedy glamour. And the Governor's mansion was seen as a way station: it was just a matter of time, the pundits were saying, until Bobby Kennedy's eldest landed a spot on a national ticket.

So not many paid attention when little-known Republican Congressman Robert Ehrlich jumped into the race last March. Maryland is so Democratic, it has not elected a Republican Governor since Spiro Agnew in 1966. But a poor campaign has hurt Townsend, who is currently lieutenant governor. Polls last week showed Ehrlich with a slight though statistically insignificant lead. The race is suddenly being viewed as a test of whether being a Kennedy is still a political advantage.

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Ehrlich has pronounced that legacy "dead." And while being a Kennedy doesn't hurt with fund raising and publicity, the name doesn't evoke the magic it once did. Maryland legislator Mark Shriver, Townsend's cousin, lost a congressional primary earlier this month, while Andrew Cuomo, her brother-in-law, abandoned his bid for New York's Democratic gubernatorial nomination even before primary day.

That leaves Townsend the last Kennedy standing in this year's races for higher office. (Cousin Patrick, Teddy's son, seems safe in his bid for re-election as a Rhode Island Congressman.) But her campaign has faltered: her choice of a white running mate was considered an insult to African-American voters, who constitute almost 30% of the electorate, especially after Ehrlich picked the state's black g.o.p. chairman for his ticket. And her association with Governor Parris Glendening has saddled her with some blame for next year's projected $1.3 billion deficit. Last week she had to fire a consultant who called Ehrlich a "Nazi."

Just as damaging is the perception that she is a clumsy campaigner who somehow failed to inherit the family's political touch. What was lost in the growing sense of inevitability that surrounded her candidacy was the fact that she had never won election on her own. In 1986 she ran for Congress and lost, making it into office on Glendening's ticket eight years later. Her syntax is Bush-like, rather than Kennedyesque. Appearing at aretirement community last week, she acknowledged a politician's support by saying, "Thank you that for" and inviting the audience togive him "a rounding of applause."

But she doesn't lack the Kennedy appetite for a good fight. As she worked the Democratic Club at the Leisure World retirement community in Silver Spring, Townsend scattered barbs at Ehrlich, who she insists is far more conservative than his image. "He wanted to privatize Social Security," she warned the seniors, who were polishing off their fried chicken. "Do you want your money in the stock market? I don't think so!"

Ehrlich's campaign, too, has had its troubles. Though he portrays himself as a moderate (he has been elected four times in a largely Democratic congressional district), his stated willingness to re-examine Maryland's tough gun-control laws could hurt him in Washington's key liberal suburbs. The race is certain to get uglier. "We're ready for it," Ehrlich says. In other words, Toto, we're not in Camelot anymore.