Crowd's antics quite debatable

The Political Game

Audience: Behavior at the gubernatorial debate has brought criticism -- and a move to close any future ones to the public.

October 01, 2002|By David Nitkin, Sarah Koenig and Howard Libit | David Nitkin, Sarah Koenig and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

IN GREAT SPORTS towns, in the most storied arenas and stadiums, the crowd becomes part of the game.

The same was true Thursday during the televised gubernatorial debate between Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The candidates may have been primed, but so, too, was the audience. T-shirts and other partisan paraphernalia were not allowed, but attendees on both sides found a way around the rules: They tucked bumper stickers and thin, flexible plastic signs into their pockets and pulled them out when on camera. They also jeered and cheered and booed their way into the action.

Each campaign received 300 tickets for the debate at Morgan State University, but more than 1,500 additional seats were available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Ehrlich supporters in Anne Arundel County leased a bus that brought them to campus. The campaign also distributed tickets to the Democrats for Ehrlich group.

The Townsend campaign made more than 1,000 telephone calls to Democratic supporters, and also enlisted the phone bank of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings.

It was the Democratic supporters who made the deepest impression: They hooted at Ehrlich, delaying his opening statement. They cheered lustily after Townsend's first remarks, in which she criticized Ehrlich for opposing race-based affirmative action, dramatically asserting that slavery and lynching were based on race -- comments that had the potential to backfire because of the overt references.

Campaign officials said a large part of the crowd was composed of labor union members who were particularly vocal.

Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick said Democrats in the audience went over the top.

They booed Ehrlich's wife and parents, he said, and distributed Oreo cookies in the audience -- a racial insult apparently aimed at GOP lieutenant governor nominee Michael S. Steele, who is black. Schurick also said he thinks they vandalized the cars of several Ehrlich supporters, scratching paint with keys.

Neil Duke, who moderated the event for the Baltimore NAACP, said the crowd's energy and enthusiasm was heartening evidence that Marylanders care about their politics.

"I'd much rather have a passionate audience of thousands vs. a dispassionate audience of a few dozen," he said.

But Duke acknowledged that passion has its limits. The vocal displeasure the crowd unleashed upon Ehrlich before he could even utter his opening statement, for instance, surprised everyone involved, he said. "With respect to the derisive behavior, that was an unfortunate circumstance, and nothing that we would hope to be duplicated in future events."

If there is another debate, it may well take place without an audience. Talks are under way for a second match-up at the Maryland Public Television studio in Owings Mills.

Ehrlich campaign says its coffers are filling fast

With polls showing an unexpected statistical dead heat in the governor's race, Ehrlich said money is pouring into his campaign account.

The congressman said months ago that he would need $8 million to compete with Townsend. If numbers he now states are correct, he is well on his way to that goal.

Schurick said yesterday that the campaign had taken in about $1 million in the past five days, upping its fund-raising total $7 million. "And we're expecting another week just like that next week," Schurick said.

About half of last week's money came from advance tickets to a fund-raiser with President Bush scheduled for tomorrow. The rest is coming from smaller fund-raisers that are bringing in twice the money expected, he said.

The campaign added that at least 95 percent of the money had come from in-state donors.

The Townsend campaign would not disclose its current total, or comment on its own pace. "Fund raising is going quite well," said spokesman Len Foxwell. "We'll have the money we need to win on Nov. 5th."

Remark gives Duncan a momentary promotion

An interesting exchange from a Takoma Park news conference over the weekend:

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan -- who considered a run for governor this year before being scared off by Townsend's huge campaign treasury -- gave an enthusiastic introduction of the lieutenant governor.

"Thank you, Doug," Townsend said as she stepped to the microphone. "You've been a great governor. ... Oops. I mean, you may be some day."

As the crowd of politicians laughed, a slightly red-faced Duncan humbly said: "I'm just happy to be county executive."

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