Townsend agrees to a pair of TV debates with Ehrlich

GOP candidate derides number as too low

Election 2002

September 07, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend agreed to two televised debates with Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday, a number the Timonium congressman dismissed as too low to serve the needs of voters.

Responding to Ehrlich's repeated demands, Townsend offered through a spokesman to begin negotiations after next week's primary to set the location and format of two debates between gubernatorial nominees. A third would pair the lieutenant governor candidates, Republican Michael S. Steele and Democrat Charles R. Larson.

The sponsors, Townsend suggested, should include the League of Women Voters of Maryland and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The latter's national affiliate has given Ehrlich an "F" rating for his congressional voting record - which, an Ehrlich spokesman noted, would make the group a less-than-objective sponsor.

Ehrlich, who in a July letter challenged Townsend to nine joint appearances, said no negotiations are needed.

Townsend should simply follow his example, he said, and agree to every invitation for candidate forums that comes their way. Ehrlich's campaign said he has accepted 21 such invitations, with hosts including the Greater Baltimore Committee, Towson University and the Maryland Recyclers Coalition.

"Two highly scripted, controlled, pretend debates is unacceptable," Ehrlich said. "They're ducking and weaving. She should be willing to engage. Let's go."

Bumper-sticker battle

Through the early stages of the campaign, Ehrlich has repeatedly sought multiple match-ups with Townsend, who has been known to commit gaffes and verbal stumbles in her public remarks. But Townsend's new and well-defined position might indicate a more aggressive phase, with her campaign increasingly confident about the Democratic candidate's ability to neutralize Ehrlich's perceived advantage in rhetoric and other areas.

In a further example, Townsend mailed bumper stickers to thousands of Democratic supporters in recent days, with a letter urging that they be displayed on cars immediately.

"I need your help with a simple but important project," she said in the letter. "We want to put 7,000 bumper stickers on Maryland cars in the next week. That means placing 1,000 stickers on cars each day for the next seven days."

Many observers agree that Ehrlich stickers have been more prevalent on roads for months, and his campaign boasts that a variety reading "Another Democrat for Ehrlich" is in its second printing.

After media reports about Townsend yard signs, bumper stickers and other paraphernalia being sold on her campaign Web site, the site was altered to offer a sticker and sign for free.

Mark of new manager

The bumper-sticker strategy bears the hallmark of Karen White, the campaign manager brought in last month after Townsend slid in the polls and the race tightened to a virtual tie. White is considered an aggressive field organizer adept at telephone banks and other grass-roots efforts.

"We've had a good couple of weeks as a staff at working together, delegating jobs to the right people," said Peter Hamm, a campaign spokesman who, like White, is a recently acquired veteran of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's 1998 victory. "We're hitting on all our cylinders right now."

Hamm rejected Ehrlich's call for a larger number of debates as unrealistic and immature.

"In serious campaign for serious offices, having nine or 14 or 42 debates is just not a grown-up way of viewing the world," Hamm said. "You want to limit the number of debates so that voters take them seriously. A campaign is not a reality-based TV program, and with all due respect, it's possible that our opponent might be voted off the island with just two debates."

In 1998, Glendening and Republican nominee Ellen R. Sauerbrey debated once. Townsend said yesterday that two debates would be sufficient. "That's what's traditionally what's been done in the state of Maryland," she said.

While negotiations have yet to begin, Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick said yesterday that NAACP sponsorship could pose problems. Townsend regularly mentions Ehrlich's "F" rating in speeches and literature.

"The NAACP has made it clear that they have chosen sides in this race and could not by any measure be viewed as an objective party," Schurick said.

Neil E. Duke, a Baltimore attorney and first vice president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, disagreed, saying group members "occupy a unique niche in the community."

"The national association is the source of the rating system, not the local branch unit," Duke said. "Certainly the Baltimore City branch stays far afield from anything that even smacks of an endorsement."

Hamm, the Townsend spokesman, said that sponsors can be negotiated but that he believed the NAACP was acceptable.

"They represent a large and reasonable part of the Maryland electorate," he said. "There's a number of organizations we would have to dismiss as potential partners if we went by report cards."

Townsend is suggesting that the three debates be broadcast by Maryland Public Television and made available to any station wanting to air them.

Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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