Much Riding on Townsend bid.(METROPOLITAN)

Article excerpt

Byline: Mary Shaffrey, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's maiden name got her to where she is today, and it will take her even further - provided she doesn't slip up, Democratic pollsters and consultants say.

"She's got all the potential in the world and she is beginning to demonstrate she can make a real connection with female voters," said Jim Thompson, a partner with Bynum, Thompson, Ryer, a Democratic consulting firm that has worked with Mrs. Townsend. "[But] let's be honest about it: It's her family connections that opens doors."

Mrs. Townsend is seeking the Democratic nomination in Maryland's gubernatorial race this year, but she is already being hyped as a contender for higher office.

"She is basically the type of Kennedy that comes from central casting in Hollywood. She is a Kennedy without the baggage," said Brad Bannon, founder of Bannon Communications Research, a Democratic consulting firm. "There is no other Kennedy that is mentioned as a national leader or as president."

This month, Parade magazine ran a center spread on likely female candidates for president, and Mrs. Townsend was prominently displayed as one of the Democratic Party's rising stars. She has also been mentioned as a candidate in several inside-the-Beltway publications as far back as August 2000.

For all the buzz, however, there is no denying Mrs. Townsend's short political track record, observers say.

The eldest child of Robert F. Kennedy, Mrs. Townsend was plucked from obscurity to be Gov. Parris N. Glendening's running mate in 1994. She has never held any other elective office, and in 1986 lost her bid for a congressional seat.

Party activists stress her strengths - star power, compassion, approachability and location - but many question Mrs. Townsend's leadership ability.

"Most Democrats here have found her to be wanting in the area of substance and most people judge her stewardship of the legislature in Maryland as not very learned," said one national Democratic adviser who asked not to be identified. "Many people quietly whisper over beers whether or not she can actually [govern]."

Mrs. Townsend's handling of criminal-justice issues for the Glendening administration has raised serious questions.

After serious problems were found in Maryland's boot camps for juvenile delinquents in 1999, Mrs. Townsend promised that the entire system would be reformed. Incidents of abuse at juvenile jails were still being reported in 2001. And her signature anti-crime initiative, HotSpots, was declared a failure last year by the Baltimore police commissioner, who pulled officers from the program. …