Round one

September 28, 2002

THERE WAS a point during Thursday night's gubernatorial debate when the candidates seemed evenly matched. A time when each looked as though they'd present a credible case for their candidacy and leave voters with a clear choice between two strong, diverging visions for this state.

Unfortunately, that moment passed in the first five minutes. Once it was gone, Democratic hopeful Kathleen Kennedy Townsend seized the upper hand and used it to inflict an uncommon public drubbing on Republican candidate Robert L. Ehrlich.

For nearly 90 minutes, she was more poised, on message and assertive than she has ever looked before.

She came with a head full of facts - not just about her candidacy but about her opponent's record - and she weaved them with equal skill into assertions of her own qualifications and savage assaults on Mr. Ehrlich's ideas.

Mr. Ehrlich was left on the defensive for most of the evening - stammering and trying to jab back at Ms. Townsend, only to come off as incoherent and even sophomoric in his attempts. Viewers got no clear picture of his platform, and an even fuzzier sense of why his candidacy might be superior to Ms. Townsend's. And what was with his constant referrals to Ms. Townsend as "ma'am"? At best, that made him seem immature, at worst condescending.

Even worse, the bizarre pride he took in admitting before a crowd at historically black Morgan State University that he was operating outside his "comfort zone" was not only poor strategy, it also wound up being a stunningly accurate description of the image he projected all evening.

For much of the debate, Mr. Ehrlich didn't even seem to belong on stage with Ms. Townsend.

That's really too bad, though, because the actual race between Mr. Ehrlich and Ms. Townsend is not nearly so lopsided.

Mr. Ehrlich is a veteran congressman and former state legislator who does have a message, a platform and a vision. He differs significantly from Ms. Townsend on matters concerning the budget, education, gambling and health care, and many of his ideas have real merit.

One of his most appealing arguments is that, as a Republican, he offers a fresh alternative to decades of one-party rule in Annapolis. His campaign has forcefully and convincingly challenged the "culture of corruption" that seems to permeate many dealings in the capital.

The debate, then, was a lost opportunity for Mr. Ehrlich to make those points and to emphasize how much his pitch differs from Ms. Townsend's. In any subsequent debates, Mr. Ehrlich should be sure to take better advantage of the chance.

For her part, Ms. Townsend's debate performance marks a real turning point. For months she has seemed a candidate at the helm of a wandering campaign, one that was predicated on a presumed right to her ascendancy rather than an effort to prove to voters that she could handle the job.

But Thursday, she made clear why she wants to be the executive, what she'd do and how. She also dispelled any doubts about her intelligence or grasp on the issues.

Thursday's debate didn't show it, but the truth is that Marylanders are being presented with a fine race for governor, with two credible hopefuls.

There ought to be at least one more discussion between these two before the November election - if for no other reason than to give Mr. Ehrlich another shot at making his case.

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