In 1996, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend called a meeting of top administration officials to lay out a plan for fighting crime. Her idea was to target dozens of dangerous neighborhoods with federal aid and the coordinated efforts of their state agencies.

The officials, mostly men, listened in stony silence, recalled Adam Gelb, Townsend's policy director at the time. Townsend had "zero authority," he said. "They gave her a million reasons why it couldn't be done."

For 2 1/2 hours, Townsend kept at them until they agreed to work with her. "It was the strength of the idea and her conviction," Gelb said. "She came in the door knowing what she wanted to do."

Townsend, the eldest child of Robert F. Kennedy, is a woman of bold ideas, admirers say. Passionate, intellectual and boundlessly energetic, she truly believes that, with a little elbow grease, it's possible to change the world, friends say.

But throughout her career, Townsend's ideas have often foundered on the shoals of political reality, plagued by underfunding, administrative bungling and sheer indifference.

Her statewide crime-fighting strategy, known as HotSpots, was the first in the nation, experts say. But its effectiveness remains unclear. This summer, a federal grand jury probe into the office that runs HotSpots and other programs has drawn attention to troubling signs of mismanagement.

Other criminal justice initiatives hailed as groundbreaking also have suffered administrative problems. Two years ago, a Silver Spring probationer who should have been off the streets under the rules of Townsend's mandatory drug-testing program murdered a decorated state trooper.

In 1992, while working for the State Department of Education, Townsend overcame fierce opposition to persuade education officials to make Maryland the only state to require high school students to perform 75 hours of community service. Ten years later, it's hard to detect the impact. A spokesman for the State Department of Education conceded that for many kids, "the experience isn't of the quality it could be."

As Townsend enters the homestretch in a tight race for governor, Townsend's supporters argue that she has achieved much against daunting odds. Her office is notoriously powerless. Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who chose Townsend as his running mate for her loyalty, celebrity and fundraising ability, has rarely backed her ideas with cash or clout, aides and lawmakers say.

"Candidly, many of the programs Kathleen was assigned to oversee basically were ones Parris was not interested in," said Del. Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee. "When it came to funding priorities, his interest was in issues that he cared about."

Detractors say that Townsend's determination to tackle huge projects from a position of such weakness is evidence of a political naivete that could make it hard for her to lead. Already, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) has vowed to roll over Townsend if she becomes the state's first female governor on Nov. 5 and tries to block him from legalizing slot machines.

Where critics see weakness, though, Townsend's friends see courage.

"By holding out hope that we could actually make some serious improvement, you could say she's got her head in the clouds," said Adam Walinsky, who has known Townsend since she was 12 and he was her father's speechwriter.

"But the fact that she chooses not to accept existing reality as the limit of possibility, that she acts as if things can get better and can be changed, I'd say that's the prerequisite for achievement."

Eschewing Labels

In recent weeks, Townsend has engaged her Republican opponent, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., in a debate over whether he is a moderate or conservative. But few have questioned where Townsend falls on the ideological spectrum and what shape her administration would take.

Hard evidence is sparse. Townsend has never held legislative office, so she has no voting record.

Since 1994, she has been partnered with one of the most liberal governors in the nation, who increased state spending by more than 60 percent. Glendening made extraordinary gains in education and the environment but will leave office in January with a projected $1.7 billion hole in the state budget.

On the campaign trail, Townsend is courting black voters, labor and liberal groups as aggressively as Glendening did, emphasizing her support for affirmative action, abortion rights and gun control.

In her writings, though, Townsend has advocated ideas often associated with social conservatives, including volunteerism and civic duty. She has criticized Democrats for abandoning religious values to the Republican right.

As early as law school, Townsend turned her attention to crime. She argues for tougher punishment for violent criminals as ardently as for drug treatment and other forms of prevention. She supports the death penalty, although she also backed the moratorium Glendening imposed this year.

Townsend declines to categorize herself, saying political labels are not "applicable to the challenges we face."

"I'm a results-oriented Democrat that wants people to be engaged and participate in their lives," she said. "It's not ideological. It's about what works."

When Townsend became lieutenant governor, Glendening gave her the title of crime czar. Eager to chart a course of action, she turned to academic experts to find "what works."

"It was a breath of fresh air," said Lawrence W. Sherman, a national expert on policing. "I've seen billions of dollars pumped into programs of unproven value. She took on the big question of how does Maryland get its crime rate down."

Her answer was the HotSpot Communities Initiative, which "concentrates money were crime is concentrated," Sherman said.

Begun in 1997, the program has funneled more than $24 million into more than 60 high-crime communities, enlisting state agencies, citizen activists and local police and prosecutors in a comprehensive strategy.

Townsend calls it her proudest achievement, combining effectiveness with "my belief that citizens have to be engaged."

Initial results are promising: In the first evaluation of the program, published last month, Sherman found that from 1998 to 2000, major crime fell an average of 35 percent in the original HotSpots areas -- more than twice the state average. The study concludes that the program "is the most likely reason."

Townsend's critics argue that crime didn't disappear -- it shifted to nearby neighborhoods.

"If you move outside a HotSpot area, what are we supposed to do? Ignore you?" said Gary McLhinney, president of the Baltimore local of the Fraternal Order of Police and an Ehrlich supporter.

The Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, the agency that oversees HotSpots, is the target of a federal investigation seeking to determine whether federal funds have been misspent, perhaps for political purposes.

Meanwhile, the crime rate is creeping back up in Maryland and nationally, threatening to wipe out any progress. A rowhouse fire that killed a mother and five children in Baltimore last week occurred in one of the city's HotSpots and was allegedly set by a man who never reported to his probation officer. Last year, violent crime rose in three of the six HotSpots in the Washington suburbs, according to state statistics.

Drug-Treatment Initiative

In 1998, Townsend started another innovative criminal justice program. Break the Cycle is the nation's first effort to force drug testing and treatment on every parolee and probationer with a history of drug use. Those who test positive or fail to show up can be sent back to prison.

The program has never been fully funded, Townsend aides said. Some treatment providers have decided not to cooperate, arguing that it's wrong to force people into treatment. And judges have been reluctant to send people to prison simply for using drugs.

After state trooper Edward M. Toatley was shot in the head by a Silver Spring drug dealer who had violated the rules 72 times without penalty, Glendening pumped more money into the parole system and the program's performance improved, according to a July study by University of Maryland researcher Faye Taxman.

Still, less than half of those ordered into treatment actually get it, Taxman said.

Ehrlich has focused on another part of Townsend's legacy: the troubled juvenile justice system.

In 1999, the Baltimore Sun reported that guards were beating inmates in military-style boot camps championed by Townsend. Glendening shut them down and fired top juvenile justice officials.

This year, the state paid $4.6 million to settle a lawsuit on behalf of the battered youths. Separately, the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation into possible civil rights violations at other juvenile facilities.

Ehrlich has attacked Townsend relentlessly on the issue and released his own plan for improving the juvenile justice system. Advocates for juvenile offenders say conditions in the facilities remain terrible but have gotten better, and they give Townsend credit for developing a plan for improvement.

Last week, Glendening offered Townsend his sympathy. It's hard, he said, "to take credit for the good things but not in any way be associated with the tough decisions."

Gelb, Townsend's former policy director who now works for Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes (D), takes a more optimistic view. "If this stuff is working as well as it is when she's lieutenant governor," he said, "it's pretty exciting to imagine how well it would work if she was governor."

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wants tougher punishments for violent criminals.