Townsend Fighting for Political Life: In the Maryland Governor's Race, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend Appears to Be Losing the Battle to Prove She Isn't Just Getting by on the Legacy of Her Family Name. (Election 2002: Maryland)

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Republicans may be licking their chops after taking a look at how Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend fared in the Democratic primary for governor. Her victory celebration was short-lived when it was realized that she had lost 20 percent of the vote to political unknown Robert Fustero, a retired grocery clerk who spent less than $1,000 on his candidacy. Townsend had laid out a cool $2.3 million.

What will this mean on Election Day for the 50-year-old Townsend, who is the eldest child of the late Robert F. Kennedy? Her Republican challenger, Rep. Bob Ehrlich, puts it bluntly to INSIGHT: "Imagine if Fustero spent $2,000."

Ehrlich, who has budgeted $4 million for the race, refuses to guarantee a victory but appears to be smelling an upset. "I'd be foolish to say that we will win this race," he says. "But I tell you now we have pulled to where we thought we could be."

As INSIGHT goes to press the latest Mason-Dixon poll shows Ehrlich leading Townsend 46 percent to 43 percent. Townsend's campaign appears to be unraveling from a combination of political blunders, speech slipups and Kennedy scandal.

Even if Townsend manages to pull out a last-minute victory any celebration again could be short-lived as she finds herself embroiled in both state and federal investigations that could turn ugly. The probes involve the misuse of public money, and the scandal is not sitting well with voters who recently learned that Townsend's boss, Gov. Parris Glendening, has led Maryland into the dismal swamp of a $1 billion deficit. So unpopular is Glendening that Townsend has avoided the governor throughout the campaign.

It didn't help that Glendening boosted himself as a prudent manager of all things financial when he was the Prince George's County executive. It turns out that he left the county in a $400 million hole as well. To make matters worse, he then authorized fat pensions for his political buddies and, ignoring the political offal hitting the fan, divorced his wife to marry an aide whom he promoted to positions in which others were more qualified to serve.

Through all of this and more Townsend supported his every move, expecting Glendening to repay her loyalty. But he can't help now because to try might cost her votes. So she remains quiet about her boss, talking instead about all the things she would like to do that he apparently refused to do. Her big-ticket items are to increase funding for education, support character training in schools and provide prescription drugs to seniors. When asked why none of her plans were acted upon during the last eight years when she was lieutenant governor, she is mum. Nor does she seem to know how to pay for most of her programs other than to raise the tax on cigarettes, which Ehrlich calls a tax on the poor.

Republicans say she was a silent partner whose ideas were not valued; that to Glendening she was just another Kennedy who could bring in campaign money. Democrats privately worry that the recent appearance of President George W. Bush at an Ehrlich fund-raiser will provide the push that finishes Townsend's political career. If so, it will be her second loss, the first having been a defeat by former newshound Helen Bentley in a 1986 congressional race. Ehrlich proudly points out that while he has been elected four times, Townsend never has won anything alone. "I wouldn't give up a safe congressional seat if I didn't think I would win," he says.

Richard Vatz, a professor of mass communications at Towson University in Maryland, says the election may come down to whether people view "Townsend as an unwitting tool of a corrupt administration or a component of the administration." There's trouble either way.

But Townsend's stewardship of the criminal-justice system in Maryland may be what derails her. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is investigating conditions in Maryland's juvenile-detention facilities to determine whether the civil rights of young offenders have been violated. …