Hoping to capitalize on his skills as a public speaker, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is trying to transform the gubernatorial campaign's debate about debates into an easy way to score points with Maryland voters.
Every chance he gets, Ehrlich calls for gubernatorial debates to start as soon as possible, accusing Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend of ducking him. Last week, he threatened to stage a sit-in at her campaign headquarters until she sets dates.
Townsend promises she will participate in debates, but says she doesn't want to schedule any until after the two political parties formally select their nominees in the September primary election - as has been the case in past Maryland gubernatorial campaigns.
Apart from the rhetoric, the debate about debates appears to highlight a weakness of Townsend's: her record of verbal gaffes and her apparent discomfort with public forums.
"She's clearly reluctant to debate," says Richard E. Vatz, a professor of rhetoric at Towson University and a close observer of state politics. "From my own analysis, as an observer, I'm a little bit incredulous at her reluctance. ... She comes across as being threatened by having to debate."
David Paulson, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, says Ehrlich's push for debates is taking the focus away from "real issues" - particularly in the broadcast media, which has grabbed onto the back-and-forth sound bites.
"Debates are an issue for the guy who is in second place and knows it," Paulson says. "It's also a way to avoid talking about real issues."
But with a poll last week from Potomac Survey Research for The Sun finding that Townsend's lead over her Republican rival has shrunk to 3 percentage points - within the statistical margin of error - the debate about debates could become significant. In addition, 40 percent of both candidates' supporters say they could be persuaded to switch sides.
"If Kathleen Kennedy Townsend had a stable and substantial lead, this is all immaterial and irrelevant," Vatz says. "This campaign appears to be quite the opposite of that. This is a very, very unstable campaign, so everything matters more."
The issue has taken on such interest that when Townsend and Ehrlich left the stage after a Baltimore National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Candidates Forum this month, the first questions television reporters asked were not about what had just been said.
Instead, Townsend and Ehrlich were asked why the NAACP forum hadn't been a debate and whether the lieutenant governor is going to agree to square off with the congressman. (NAACP officials say they never intended for candidates to interact with each other at the forum this month, only to answer questions separately from a panel of interviewers.)
"It's time to stop the shenanigans," says Ehrlich. "I think it's time we get together and start having conversations about the issues."
Townsend says that the eight weeks between the primary and general elections provides plenty of time for debates - assuming she and Ehrlich earn the nominations. "I'm going to win my primary," she says with a smile, "but we're not sure he'll win his."
Townsend aides also note decades of Maryland gubernatorial history during which the two major-party nominees waited until after the primary to engage in debates.
Last week, Ehrlich went one step further in his push to start facing off as soon as possible. He sent a letter to Townsend's campaign calling for a series of six 90-minute debates throughout Maryland, followed by three televised debates in the final month of the campaign.
Receiving no reply - and with Townsend starting to level attacks on his congressional record - Ehrlich suggested he might stage a sit-in at Townsend's Mount Washington headquarters.
"If she wants to hit and run, that's not acceptable," Ehrlich says. "We want to engage. People expect candidates to engage."
Townsend's campaign aides say they can't imagine a scenario in which the lieutenant governor doesn't debate Ehrlich at least once, but they say they anticipate beginning debate negotiations after the primary.
A common tactic
Ehrlich's efforts to thrust debates to the forefront of the campaign agenda is no surprise to those familiar with the public-speaking skills of both candidates.
"Every campaign that has a good debater or a good campaigner plays this issue to the hilt, even though it might not add anything substantive to the election," says Donald F. Norris, a policy sciences professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
And in the current Maryland gubernatorial campaign, there's little question at the moment about who is the more confident debater.
Political observers say that although practice has helped Townsend become a much better public speaker than she was when elected lieutenant governor in 1994, her aides cringe from time to time at her verbal slip-ups.