Maryland's top elected Democrats gathered in a Washington hotel yesterday for a frank post-primary critique of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's flagging gubernatorial campaign and began plotting strategies to rescue a candidate they believe is in trouble.
The session included pointed criticism of what party leaders see as Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's reluctance to support Townsend. The U.S. senators, congressmen and other leaders assembled for the meeting also received assurances that Townsend's closest aide and campaign director, Alan H. Fleischmann, was no longer involved in day-to-day campaign operations.
"Alan recognizes he has not run a statewide campaign before," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland's senior congressman and a participant in the meeting. "If this was a cakewalk, it wouldn't matter. But it's not a cakewalk."
The meeting - held every election year to plan for the general election - this year reflected Democrats' unease over the Townsend campaign. Two new polls show the lieutenant governor has been overtaken by her Republican opponent, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
With Townsend's prospects falling, some Democratic officials are distancing themselves from her, Hoyer said. His frustration was on display Tuesday night at a fund-raiser for state Senate Democratic nominees organized by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
"Democrats, stop apologizing for our candidate," Hoyer told the gathering of politicians and lobbyists. "I want you to stop shucking and jiving. ... I want you to stop backing up on Kathleen Kennedy Townsend."
Yesterday, Hoyer aimed his warning directly at O'Malley aides at the Washington meeting. He said the mayor - who considered challenging Townsend in the primary and has spoken of a "vacuum of leadership" in the state party - must do more to support Townsend.
O'Malley did not attend the session. Hoyer telephoned him later in the day to repeat his concerns.
The mayor brushed aside the criticism, pointing to past statements that he would support the party's nominee and his standing at Townsend's side during a rally last month when she pledged more money for Baltimore's drug-treatment programs.
"I don't know what they want from me, quite frankly," O'Malley said. "I think it was a misunderstanding."
In addition to Townsend and Hoyer, attendees included senators Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin, Albert R. Wynn and Elijah E. Cummings, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Townsend running mate Adm. Charles R. Larson.
For the past several weeks, much of the criticism of Townsend's campaign has centered on Fleischmann, her affable and protective aide who served as chief of staff in the lieutenant governor's office.
Many political leaders have called for his ouster, saying Fleischmann is an insurmountable buffer who has harmed Townsend by insulating her from outside advice.
The criticism continued yesterday, amid mixed messages about Fleischmann's role. Some party activists said they were certain he was being relegated to lesser duties, while a campaign spokesman said his role is unchanged.
"I think the campaign is in major disarray, and part of the problem is it is being managed by neophytes with no experience, and the results show it," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and influential chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Rawlings said a Townsend primary-day performance captured on television news video - she stood silently and looked at her aides as a poll worker tried to prevent her from voting in view of gathered media members - was evidence of a candidate in trouble.
"I cannot believe she did not feel outraged about that," Rawlings said. "Her public persona on that showed weakness. No one wants someone weak running the state. ... Once I saw that, I said there are problems there. I just can't believe the woman doesn't have passion."
During the past month, Townsend has hired veterans from Gov. Parris N. Glendening's 1998 campaign - Karen White to handle field operations and Peter Hamm to serve as a spokesman. Many have wondered about what role Fleischmann would play.
"He'll be focusing on fund-raising, which is a code word for saying, 'Keep your hands off the campaign,'" said an elected official who attended yesterday's meeting. "That's a very encouraging sign."
Said another Democratic activist who did not attend: "I would characterize the campaign under Alan as a disaster. I'm told that Alan is willing to give up the reins of the day-to-day campaign."
Rawlings said he did not know of a change but added it was needed. "My understanding is that Karen White does not have the full authority to act, and does not have the full authority to send these neophytes packing," he said.
Fleischmann would not comment yesterday on his role in the campaign.
Hamm, the spokesman, said Fleischmann was not relinquishing any duties and would remain a top strategist in addition to helping raise money. "It's absolutely untrue that Alan Fleischmann's duties are limited to fund-raising," he said.
At yesterday's meeting, White and media consultant Bob Shrum briefed officials on Townsend's strategy and direction for the next seven weeks. They reviewed television commercials and get-out-the-vote efforts.
"There was a lot of optimism," Duncan said. "The plan made sense, and people bought into it."
Laying low in August
Townsend also told the crowd that her campaign had been quiet last month, believing that voters weren't paying attention.
"That may have been a mistake, because it gave rise to the sense that she wasn't engaged," Hoyer said. "I think she was champing at the bit."
Hoyer is emerging as a leading cheerleader for Townsend during a turbulent time. Still, he and others are sounding increasingly blunt about her campaign problems - which include Democratic politicians who want to keep their distance for fear of defeat.
"Even if you don't like our candidate, you ought to start loving her," said retiring Sen. Clarence W. Blount, a senior adviser to the Townsend campaign who appeared on her behalf at the Miller event Tuesday. The alternative of Ehrlich is unacceptable, he said.
Because of Ehrlich's momentum and Townsend's troubles, some Democrats running for office view the lieutenant governor as a potential liability.
"I am neutral on the governor's race and am focusing my efforts on winning a senate seat," said Jim Brochin, a Democratic candidate in the 42nd District in Baltimore County.
As a first-time candidate trying to build name recognition, Brochin has knocked on thousands of doors in Towson, Rogers Forge and Timonium. But rather than forging an allegiance with Townsend, a politician known throughout the state, Brochin changes the subject when the governor's race comes up.
Elsewhere in Baltimore County, county executive candidate Jim Smith, a Democrat, has yet to politically embrace Townsend. Democratic Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens also has withheld her endorsement.
Townsend said yesterday she was not concerned about standoffishness from members of her party.
"We're getting the word out," Townsend said. "We're making the distinctions [from Ehrlich] clear."
Standard party fare
Divisions within the party, said Hamm, are standard fare among Democrats.
"It's natural in a state like Maryland, where there is a Democratic Party that is very dominant, for there to be rancor around the edges of party unity, and plenty of backseat drivers to go around," Hamm said. "Any Democrats that distance themselves from this gubernatorial candidate run the risk of being distanced from the next governor of Maryland. I do not mean that as a threat. That's a political reality."
In parts of Maryland where Townsend has more support, particularly the Washington suburbs, the concerns are different.
"The issue in Prince George's and Montgomery is turnout," said Wynn, adding that most elected officials and rank-and-file party members back Townsend. "The question is not backing away. The question is how you generate excitement."
Sun staff writer Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.