After a little chaos, zings and arrows fly

If you could find it, debate full of barbs

Campaign Culture

September 27, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend came to prove that she has command of both the minutiae of policy and the basics of the English language.

Robert L. Ehrlich sought to emerge as Daniel venturing into the lion's den - a Republican at a historically black campus at a forum sponsored by the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP.

At the outset of last night's forum for the two major candidates for governor of Maryland, however, the question, at least briefly, was this: Would Ehrlich get a word out?

As the forum began at Morgan State University last night, partisans in the crowd alternately cheered Ehrlich, the Republican congressman from Baltimore County, and Townsend, the state's Democratic lieutenant governor. The two stood at lecterns at either side of the stage, separated by a long table with five questioners. Moderator Neil Duke, the first vice president of the local chapter of the NAACP, attempted to set a dignified tone.

Many members of the audience, though, hooted at Ehrlich's opening remarks, prompting Townsend to bound cheerfully to her opponent's defense. Then NAACP president and CEO Kweisi Mfume rushed up from his seat in the crowd to request silence.

What viewers out in Teeveeland made of all this hubbub is not entirely clear, nor was it immediately clear where to watch it happen. While cable provider Comcast broadcast the debate in the Baltimore region on CN8, its Philadelphia-based cable news station, it did not transmit the feed for many city residents until well into the proceedings. C-SPAN picked up the broadcast a few minutes in.

(While we're at it, why did Maryland Public Television, the state broadcaster, decide to air the re-run of an episode of Ken Burns' The Civil War instead of carrying the debate live? Did programmers out in Owings Mills really think Lee wouldn't surrender at Appomatox if the episode were delayed? The debate was replayed on MPT, WBAL-TV and WBFF later last night.)

Those who managed to watch saw Ehrlich spend much of the 90-minute event damning Townsend with faint Ma'ams, as in, "Ma'am, please don't tell me ... " or "Ma'am, I never said ... " and promising to help her try to understand complex issues.

At other times, Ehrlich portrayed the race as a fight between new blood and blue blood, implicitly referring to the Kennedy family's wealth. When Townsend brought up the ethics of corporate executives at Enron - a common Democratic theme this year - Ehrlich snorted and said she must have been familiar with the firm from her investment portfolio.

Questions about Townsend's ability to speak coherently in public evaporated in the first minutes. She spoke quickly - her delivery seemed like that of a busy executive who skips the occasional word in an e-mail. But she successfully projected herself as someone having a complete grasp of the issues affecting the state - and got in a few one-liners of her own.

"This is not Star Trek," she replied after Ehrlich talked of seeking votes among black Marylanders, which he called new territory for Republicans. "African-Americans are not aliens."

Townsend was willing to hit hard, sometimes questionably hard, as she linked Ehrlich's record against affirmative action to slavery and Jim Crow laws, and his vote on liability for gun sales to trafficking with terrorists. "Oh, man!" Ehrlich replied after another jab by Townsend. "I'll tell ya, the ratings should be high."

The tenor of the proceedings was such that had things gone on much longer, we might have seen exchanges like this:

Reporter: Congressman Ehrlich, you have been given a minus 7 by the Americans United to Help Adorable Border Collie Puppies. How do you respond to the claim you don't care about them?

Ehrlich: I'd say `Ma'am, look at my actual record. Nobody knows more than I do what adorable bordie collie puppies need to thrive. You can take 1,700 votes in isolation, but I've voted to support expanded opportunities for collies almost every time.

Moderator: Rebuttal?

Townsend: The fact is, I've been endorsed not only by adorable border collies, but the Association of Golden Retrievers from J. Crew Catalogs, and the Cumberland Coalition of Wheezing Schnauzers. And you've got to wonder, whose fault is it that animal shelters are overcrowded?

By debate's end, the two main candidates for governor seemed to have largely accomplished their goals in the race's only televised debate to date. What it did for voters who took the trouble to watch is another question.

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