Taking Aim

updated 11/04/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/04/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

For Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, every shot fired by the Washington, D.C. area sniper carries an awful echo. Her father was assassinated with a cheap pistol; her uncle was killed by a high-powered rifle. "I have had a lot of tragedy in my life because of guns," says Townsend, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and niece of JFK. "I know the pain of losing somebody."

Now, similarly horrific violence—in the form of the sniper attacks—has become the backdrop for one of the tightest election battles in the country: the race for the governorship of Maryland. On one side is Lieutenant Governor Townsend, 51, a Democrat who has dragged gun control squarely to center stage. On the other is Republican Robert Ehrlich Jr., 44, a four-term U.S. congressman and staunch defender of gun owners who has garnered $24,000 and an A rating from the National Rifle Association—and who accuses his opponent of trading on the tragedy.

Until recently both candidates were exchanging minor salvos in a low-key campaign, and Townsend was watching her 13-point lead shrink to a dead heat. Some blamed her association with the outgoing incumbent, Gov. Parris Glendening, who scandalized constituents last year by divorcing his wife and marrying a former aide. Others say her real problem was a surprisingly lackluster campaign style. Says Laurence Learner, author of The Kennedy Women: "She's a fine, honorable candidate, but she was out there giving boilerplate speeches."

But by late October, as the sniper's spree terrorized constituents (at press time, eight of the 13 shootings had occurred in Maryland), Townsend seemed to have found her cause. Drawing national headlines with television ads that attacked Ehrlich's past votes against bans on assault weapons and cheap handguns, she proclaimed, "His extremist views don't represent Maryland."

In response, Ehrlich warned that Townsend's new tactic could backfire. "The ongoing tragedy in Montgomery County and surrounding areas should not serve as an open door to politicize or capitalize off of the pain of others," he says. "This is a time to pray for the victims and families."

Gun control aside, the two candidates come from very different places. The oldest of Bobby and Ethel's 11 children, Kathleen, nicknamed the Nun by her siblings, "was the one at the dinner table who would argue most forcefully with my father," recalls her brother Bobby Kennedy Jr., 48. Sixteen at the time of her father's death, she soon became a stabilizing force in her storm-tossed family. "She was the rock, the person who solved the problems," says her husband, David Townsend, 54, a classics professor at St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., and father to their daughters Meaghan, 24, Maeve, 22, Kate, 18, and Kerry, 10. At age 28, for example, she became legal guardian of her troubled brother David, then 24. (Despite her efforts to force him into treatment for heroin and alcohol addiction, he died in 1984 of an overdose.)

Townsend managed her uncle Ted's victorious 1982 senatorial campaign and served as a deputy assistant U.S. attorney general in the Clinton Administration before becoming lieutenant governor—and the first Kennedy woman to hold elective office—in 1995. Despite her formidable connections, she has refused throughout the current campaign to call on her famous relatives for help on the stump. "This has to be my race," she says. "I've got to do this on my own." Says Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.): "People totally underestimate how determined she is. She is steely and unflinching."

Her opponent's supporters say that he is equally steadfast. The son of Robert Ehrlich Sr., a car salesman, and his wife, Nancy, a legal secretary, Ehrlich grew up in blue-collar Arbutus, Md., before being accepted at prep school on scholarship and earning a political science degree from Princeton. (He won his first congressional race, in 1994, against a wealthy classmate, Gerry L. Brewster.) Now married to Kendel Sibiski, 40, a former public defender, and the father of Drew, 3, Ehrlich is known for cloaking his stubbornness in affability. During his early days as a state delegate in Annapolis, two Democratic friends tried to persuade him to switch parties, but Ehrlich refused. "He thought about it and said, 'Thanks, but at my core I am a Republican,' " says D. Bruce Poole, one of the friends.

Whatever the outcome on Nov. 5, it seems unlikely that either candidate will be gloating at his or her victory party. "There's no question that the sniper has had an impact on this election. People are very afraid," says Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. "Going in, the important issue was the state budget. Now it's guns."

Susan Schindehette
Jane Sims Podesta in Annapolis

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