Is campaign tone a tonic or a turnoff?

October 06, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

SO, YOU wanted issues in the campaign for governor? You wanted to know more about the candidates' problem-solving skills? Sorry, that part of the campaign is over. From now on, it's all about tone.

Who was shrill in the NAACP debate? Who was defensive? Who called whom a bad name ("Ma'am," etc.)?

If he hint of an issue arises in the next few weeks, it will come wrapped in tone: a disparaging tone, a deprecating tone, a tone of frustration, a tone of ridicule.

There will be beef -- and there's been more already than you may realize -- but most of what you're going to get in this campaign you've got already.

To be fair to the candidates, tone is driven by the conviction that something colorful is needed to stir the mighty, somnolent electorate. There's a problem here, though: If the voter sleeps as a form of escape from the tone, more of the same could make the sleep deeper.

To be even fairer, dealing with a $1.7 billion deficit can be like watching the grass grow. Hence, tone.

The Republican candidate, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., says the Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, has to accept responsibility for the deficit.

"The tab came due," he said. "And it has your name on it."

The Democrat's rejoinder: Your deficit-reduction plan looks like it was scribbled on the back of an envelope or the front of a napkin. A "flimflam," she said.

The "98 percent" job freeze put into place by Gov. Parris N. Glendening is twice as good as the one her opponent backs, she said.

Others in government say the 98 percent freeze doesn't exist. Many people have been hired since the freeze was declared, not just essential replacements. In fact, said one state fiscal expert, the Glendening freeze has looked more like a Slurpee.

And so it goes. Tone more than issues drives the bus.

A colleague of mine says women she knows -- women who would like to vote for a woman -- wish Ms. Townsend were not the choice. The debate in which she administered a drubbing to Mr. Ehrlich did little if anything to console them. They found her tone and performance edgy, negative and, worst of all, shrill.

If you're KKT, you have to be throwing up your hands. After months of being called passive and energy-challenged, now she's shrill?

Mr. Ehrlich, conversely, left his fervent supporters almost as frustrated. What was he thinking before and during that debate? Why didn't he stay on the deficit message or the "culture of corruption" message? Why did he call her "ma'am"? What was once a term of respect didn't sound like one.

The reverberations of that encounter will echo into the voting booth. Democrats think their candidate's performance energized a party that thought it had no leader. But did the feisty Ms. Townsend stand up in time?

And was anyone paying attention?

A Montgomery County pollster says the body politic there needs a defibrillator, a jolt to its slow-beating heart. Heavily Democratic Baltimore, too, seems less enthusiastic than it needs to be if you're Ms. Townsend.

Mr. Ehrlich had President Bush in town last week to summon the faithful -- and to help Mr. Ehrlich claim the most successful fund-raising event in Maryland political history. He put $1.8 million in his campaign account the next day. Money drives turnout.

Ms. Townsend will get into the celebrity campaign swing again on Oct. 18 when Bill "The Defibrillator" Clinton comes to Maryland. The former president's presence at New Psalmist Baptist Church helped to re-elect Mr. Glendening in 1998 and will be useful this time as well.

In the meantime, tone is the turnout lever of choice. When, during the debate, Ms. Townsend spoke of affirmative action (an issue, by the way), she said it should be based on race because slavery, Jim Crow and lynching were based on race. Her detractors called that rhetoric "over the top" and, of course, shrill. Her backers thought it was simply the truth -- and a truth of enduring importance to the Democrat base.

Mr. Ehrlich's comments about the deficit and the Glendening-Townsend fingerprints on it were his version of a call to arms.

Somewhere in there, you'll find issues and clear distinctions between the candidates ... if you don't get discouraged by the tone.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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