OCEAN CITY -- In the first debate between the candidates for governor, Democrat Parris N. Glendening held his own last night before a pro-business audience presumed to favor Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey.
Mr. Glendening, the three-term Prince George's County executive, touted his experience and successful dealings with companies before a crowd of 340 business people, lawmakers and lobbyists gathered for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce's annual legislative conference.
In the hour-long debate, Mr. Glendening managed to fend off attacks by Mrs. Sauerbrey, the Maryland House minority leader from Baltimore County, who delivered a feisty performance, jabbing at her Democratic opponent for his record of supporting taxes.
A confident Mrs. Sauerbrey delivered her message of cutting personal income taxes by an average of 24 percent over four years -- the centerpiece of her campaign -- shrinking government and reducing regulations to a very receptive audience.
"What direction do you want Maryland to go in?" she asked. "Do you want a governor with a clear, consistent record . . . to be the voice of fiscal responsibility? Or do you want a governor fighting to increase taxes? That's the choice."
But Mr. Glendening dismissed her plans as "pre-election rhetoric," saying that she will not be able to deliver on her promises.
He, too, said, "there is a clear choice" between Mrs. Sauerbrey and himself. "I have a vision . . . based on a detailed comprehensive plan" that will make government "effective, efficient and yet compassionate."
Appearing well-briefed by his handlers, Mr. Glendening stressed his executive experience managing a county that is larger than six states, contrasting it with Mrs. Sauerbrey's experience as a legislator who supervised an office of two employees.
"This election is also about mainstream values," he said, mentioning Mrs. Sauerbrey's stance against abortion-rights and bans on assault weapons.
On the subject of business, however, Mrs. Sauerbrey in many instances was preaching to the choir -- conservative representatives of the state's business community with whom she has been closely allied over the years.
Mr. Glendening pointed out his own successes with business in Prince George's County and last night proposed creating an appointed board to oversee the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development, similar to what he had done with a county economic development agency.
Asked if he saw a winner last night, Champe C. McCulloch, president if the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said "Give me a coin, and I'll flip it. I think it's a dead heat.
"Frankly, I think it's indicative of the kind of race this is," Mr. McCulloch said. "This a very closely contested race."
But not everyone believed it was a draw.
"If you were judging this like a heavyweight bout, I'd give Sauerbrey 7 of the 10 rounds," said J. William Pitcher, an Annapolis lawyer and lobbyist. "But it's still a long way to go to get 24 percent out of this budget."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat from Prince George's County who has battled with Mr. Glendening over the years, said he thought "they both did exceptionally well," but believed his party's nominee took the win.
"He was better prepared and had a better handle on facts and figures," he said. "I thought it was very close, but I think that Parris' experience gave him the edge."
Mr. Glendening and Mrs. Sauerbrey offered a three-minute opening statement and then each answered seven questions on the following subjects: education, taxes, regulations, fiscal crises, economic development and the state's Transportation Trust Fund. The candidates were given the questions in advance.
Each candidate had two minutes to reply to the question, a one-minute rebuttal of the other's response, and a two-minute closing statement.
The debate initially was to include an opportunity for each candidate to ask one question of the other, but that was deleted at the request of one of the campaigns, Mr. McCulloch said.
He declined to identify which campaign made the request.
The questions were based in part on the Chamber's "Strategy for Maryland's Economic Growth," a study released yesterday that makes recommendations for improving the state's economy.
The debate last night was the first of at least three debate-style forums. The two remaining face-to-face forums are scheduled for next Tuesday and Wednesday, the first on a Montgomery County cable station and the second on Maryland Public Television.
The issue of a debate between candidates came to the forefront over the weekend, when Mrs. Sauerbrey challenged Mr. Glendening to a debate televised on a network-affiliated station that reaches most Marylanders.
Programs broadcast by Baltimore stations would reach two-thirds of the state, according to advertising penetration figures.