Hits but no home runs in TV mayoral debate, Late innings: Bell, O'Malley and Stokes show Sept. 14 Democratic primary is still a three-way race.

September 01, 1999

EVEN THOUGH the Sept. 14 primary is less than two weeks away, no candidate has emerged as a clear front-runner. It's still a three-way race. This is highly unusual. Normally, a clear leader is established at this late stage.

Monday night's fast-paced debate on WBAL television and radio underscored what a toss-up the contest is.

All three of the candidates (others weren't invited) had a reason to be satisfied: Carl Stokes was combative and forceful; Martin O'Malley, upbeat and focused. The big surprise, though, was Lawrence A. Bell III. He handled tough questions with well-rehearsed facility and direction. We wish the City Council president had demonstrated the same competence during his past four years in office.

The next -- and last -- time they are scheduled to appear together on television is a debate Tuesday on WMAR, a week before the primary.

The issues that will confront the next mayor of Baltimore can't be adequately addressed with one-minute answers or television sound bites. Yet of the 17 Democrats and six Republicans running for mayor, only two candidates -- Mr. Stokes and Mr. O'Malley -- have come up with comprehensive platforms. (They are available in full on their Web sites: www.carlstokes.com and www.omalleyformayor.net).

Lack of specificity may be another reason why Mr. Bell, who started the campaign as the overwhelming front-runner, has apparently seen his support crumble. Recent polls place Mr. Bell a distant third in the contest, with Mr. Stokes and Mr. O'Malley in a virtual tie out front. The big unanswered questions are how accurate the polls are and whether the leads will hold.

As the final stretch of the primary campaign starts, many Baltimoreans seem to be undecided. Just take a tour through West Baltimore's Ten Hills and Hunting Ridge neighborhoods. Both have high numbers of faithful voters, yet hardly any residents have put political signs on their lawns. Many other neighborhoods throughout the city similarly show less evidence of political activity than during the lethargic 1995 primary.

Baltimoreans must overcome that apathy before Sept. 14. Despite its many problems, their hometown is a city of untapped opportunities. That great promise can be fulfilled only through political participation and citizen activism. There are viable candidates in this primary who deserve voters' support.

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