As Sam Culotta faces the most important day of his political life this Friday, his televised debate with Mayor Schmoke, he is sure of only one thing.
"I am going to wear a blue shirt," Culotta said. "Or maybe a white one."
Culotta is the Republican nominee for mayor and Schmoke is the Democratic nominee in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 9-1.
Though both men won their primary elections in September, Culotta got around 1,500 votes and Schmoke got around 62,000.
Even if you gave Culotta all the Democratic votes that were cast against Schmoke, plus all the Republican votes cast for all the Republican candidates, that would still not add up to Schmoke's 62,000.
In order for Culotta to win the general election on Nov. 5, therefore, he needs not only Republican voters and anti-Schmoke Democrats, but thousands of previously pro-Schmoke voters.
So you can see why his shirt color is so important.
"I always heard that you have to wear a blue shirt on television," Culotta said. "But some say white is OK. What do you hear?"
I think blue was required in the early days of black and white TV, I said, but I think it doesn't matter now.
"So maybe I'll wear white," Culotta said. "Or maybe blue. Somebody suggested pink. What do you think of pink?"
I don't want to get involved, I said.
"Pink is . . . I don't know," Culotta said. "I think I'll go with the white. Or maybe the blue."
Of equal confusion is the stage set-up for the debate at Channel 2 studios. There will be a panel of four journalists, and Beverly Burke, a Channel 2 anchor person, will moderate. The two candidates will stand behind lecterns, one on the right side of the stage and one on the left.
Culotta's representative won the coin toss and requested that Culotta stand "so that Mayor Schmoke looks at the left side of his face."
It took a few moments for the people at Channel 2 to figure this out, but when they did, they correctly placed Schmoke on the left side of the stage (looking forward) and Culotta on the right.
Which happens to be the opposite of what Culotta wanted, however. His campaign team forgot that the right side of the stage is the left side of the TV screen.
"I want to be on the right side of the screen," Culotta said, "because I have all these pictures of me and other people, and when I am on the left side, I don't recognize myself. I have this picture here of me and Richard Nixon, and I am on the right side and that's good. That is where I want to be in the debate."
That may be where you want to be, I told him, but that is not currently where you are. You will be on the left side of the screen and Schmoke will be on the right side of the screen.
"Oh, what the hell," Culotta said. "One more thing to overcome."
In 1987, when Culotta ran against Schmoke and lost, there was no debate between the two. Instead, there was a primary debate between Schmoke and Du Burns, the incumbent mayor.
There was no primary debate this time because Schmoke and his campaign staff did not want one. Although it cannot be said that Burns beat Schmoke in their debate four years ago, Burns' better-than-expected performance certainly gave his campaign a boost.
This time Schmoke was not interested in giving any of his primary opponents a boost. But to show he is not afraid to debate -- and also to get free TV time to promote his agenda -- he agreed to a general election debate in a campaign that is almost impossible for him to lose.
A further incentive for Schmoke to debate Culotta is Culotta's reluctance to sharply attack his opponents.
"No, I will not attack during the debate," Culotta said. "A lot of people are telling me to, but that might boomerang. The last thing I want to do is get Schmoke sympathy. This will be a debate on the issues."
Schmoke's campaign manager, Larry Gibson, is prepared for anything, however.
"We do have a debate strategy," he said, "but I don't want to tell you what it is because you will print it and that will tell Mr. Culotta."
But what possible difference could it make? What could Kurt Schmoke do to lose this debate badly enough to make a difference in the election? Speak in tongues? Bite the head off a chicken? Make a move on Beverly Burke?
"All I can tell you is this," Gibson said. "The mayor will be different."
Different from what?
"He will be different in the debate than he was in the primary campaign," Gibson said. "That's all I'm saying."
Schmoke ran a cool and collected primary campaign, emphasizing his own record and not attacking his opponents. So does this mean that in the debate he will be hot and attacking?
"I am just saying that Mr. Culotta, who is a perfect gentleman, is a Republican and the Republican standard bearer and that recently Mayor Schmoke was in Washington, D.C., to rally for a change of policy by the Republican administration," Gibson said.
And before that rally, Schmoke was moved to actual tears while speaking out against those who had turned their backs on the cities of America. So will Schmoke show some real emotion on TV Friday night?
"We have a strategy, and the mayor will be different," Gibson said. "That's all I'm saying."
One last question: What color shirt will the mayor be wearing?
"White," Gibson said. "Or blue."
Anything else you can say?
"It will be button-down," Gibson said.
"I think those are the only kind of shirts he owns," Gibson said.
The Great Mayoral Debate. Channel 2. Friday. Eight p.m. to nine p.m. If you care about the city, if you care about the future, or if you just care about shirts, you can't afford to miss it.
vTCHD: Great Debate: Will it be white shirts or blue?