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."