Putting off another face-off

The Political Game

Debates: Ehrlich and Townsend seem content with exchanging views at forums - away from television's glare.

The Political Game

October 15, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

THEY SEEM to have plenty of time for forums, so why can't Maryland's leading candidates for governor schedule another debate?

That's the question being asked at almost every event featuring both Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"I would urge another televised debate for all the voters," said Barry Sussman, moderator of a weekend forum at B'nai Israel synagogue in Rockville. "Voters ought to be able to see what you both have to say."

The B'nai Israel forum was the second of two forums attended by Ehrlich and Townsend at Montgomery County synagogues Sunday morning.

Last night, they squared off in a student forum at Baltimore's Polytechnic Institute, and they're scheduled to meet again today in Timonium and Friday in Cambridge. The candidates for lieutenant governor found time to meet yesterday at a forum at Bowie State University.

Yet the candidates for governor and lieutenant governor remain far apart on scheduling any televised debates with the League of Women Voters.

"In spite of the fact they can do hundreds of these forums, it still limits the number of voters who can see them," said Lu Pierson, the league's voter service chairwoman. "Our purpose to do it on television is to give all the voters around the state the opportunity to see them."

Though the candidates and their campaign aides sometimes use the terms "forum" and "debate" interchangeably, they say there are huge differences between a statewide televised debate and a forum before a crowd of a few hundred.

It's true that in both debates and forums, the candidates usually get a couple minutes to give opening and closing remarks. In both settings, they're answering questions - from a panel of journalists in formal debates and from audience members during forums.

There's even a chance that a "quasi-debate" can break out during a forum, as occurred Sunday when Sussman criticized Townsend and Ehrlich for spending too much time exchanging verbal attacks.

But forums typically offer little opportunity for rebuttal, and questions are usually focused on the nature of the group sponsoring the event. (Today's AARP forum will surely feature topics different from Friday's Chamber of Commerce forum.)

And then there's the pressure that comes from such a big audience. Even when television stations or newspapers cover forums, they're never able to replay or write more than a small segment of what gets said.

"If you ask all candidates in their heart of hearts, `Do you want to debate?' the answer would be, `No,'" said Ken Broda-Bahm, a professor of communications at Towson University. "The perception is that you have more to lose than to gain, the potential to be seen as too combative, too negative.

"But candidates debate because they feel pressure, and I think that's a healthy pressure," Broda-Bahm said. "There's a type of exchange and pressure we only see in the side-by-side debate."

Ehrlich and Townsend have met once for a debate, last month at Morgan State University in an event sponsored by the city chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The debate focused largely on issues of interest to Baltimore and African-American voters, and the audience - which seemed to be mostly pro-Townsend - repeatedly interrupted Ehrlich.

After that debate, Townsend said she wanted at least one more televised debate, and Ehrlich has said he'd "like to debate every day between now and the election if we could."

Yet prospects for another debate appear dim.

Last week, the Townsend campaign sent a letter to the league saying it was so frustrated by unanswered phone messages left with the Ehrlich campaign that it was breaking off all discussions of debates. Instead, the campaign said, it will turn its attention toward mobilizing voter turnout on Election Day.

Ehrlich and his campaign aides say they're unaware of these messages and say Townsend's the one who is ducking more debates.

"The wording in the letter from the Townsend campaign is that they will not deal with any more debates, and that's what we have to go on," Pierson said yesterday. "The league cannot participate in an empty-chair debate."

But Pierson still holds out hope that the campaigns can resume talking. With just a few days' notice, she said, the league and television stations could easily organize a debate.

Bill Fine, general manager of WBAL-TV, said he hopes to organize a debate for Oct. 28 with the league and Maryland Public Television. He said he has a letter agreeing to the date from Ehrlich, but hasn't gotten any response from Townsend. (Pierson said Fine is the only one who has received that letter, and the league does not have any written agreement to Oct. 28 or any other date.)

The Oct. 28 proposal - eight days before the election - calls for a 90-minute debate to start at 7:30 p.m. and be made available to any television station that's interested, said Fine, who has taken the lead among Baltimore's commercial broadcast stations in trying to organize a debate.

"We're trying to offer an opportunity to the vast majority of voters, who really never get the chance to go to a forum or a town hall meeting or see a speech by the candidates," Fine said. "If the television stations are willing to get together to do this, I think the candidates owe it to the voters."

Deadline for voter registration

Today is the deadline to register to vote in Maryland's general election Nov. 5. Applicants must sign and return registration forms to the election board in the county where they live or to the state board of elections in Annapolis by 9 p.m.

Registration forms are available at election board offices, Motor Vehicle Administration offices, libraries and post offices.

Forms may also be obtained on the election board Web site at www.elections.state.md.us.

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