Blue smoke, mirrors and the art of campaigning

May 28, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

Let us consider two infrequently mentioned campaign dynamics: good fortune and instinct.

Substance gets a lot of attention in the electoral chemistry. Style never takes a back seat. Both are important, if not critical. You have to know what you're talking about - and you have to get people's attention.

But there's a lot more to it. Who can recognize and seize opportunity when it arises?

For example, I give you the recent testy confrontation between Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. They're facing each other in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. In one of their first competitive engagements of the campaign, they squared off during a forum convened by advocates for the disabled at the Timonium Fairgrounds.

Mr. O'Malley had been up since 2 a.m. dealing with a fatal car crash involving city police. He had attempted to console the dead officer's family. It had been an emotionally draining day, yet he would be expected to proceed with the political schedule as if nothing untoward had occurred. His opponent might face similar moments later, of course.

The two candidates arrived with the requisite position papers. They agreed on almost everything. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wasn't doing enough for the disabled. They would do more.

The candidates sat opposite each other at long tables. A large loudspeaker stood between Mr. Duncan and the audience. What looked like an obstacle turned out to be an opportunity. He stood, while his opponent remained seated. On his feet, Mr. Duncan seemed the more commanding figure.

There was little opportunity as the forum continued for the kind of contrastive combat that both will need to make their case to the voters. But then came the summing up, the grand peroration, the stump speech, as it were.

Mr. O'Malley was asked to speak first - another advantage for Mr. Duncan, as it turned out. "There are," the mayor said, "committed, smart, caring people throughout our state, Democrats and Republicans alike, who believe we have a responsibility to make progress."

Imbedded in this line was the charge that Mr. Ehrlich has failed to accept that responsibility, leaving the engine of state idling.

"I leave you with this story," he said, and told about his son watching educational television. "He was not watching Nickelodeon. He was not watching cartoons. He was 8 years old and watching a History Channel special about Rosa Parks," whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus helped to spark the modern civil rights movement.

The boy had a question, the kind kids ask, unencumbered by the baggage of experience and history.

"`Dad, didn't they know they were all going to the same place? Didn't they know they were all going to the same place?' If there is a message for this O'Malley-Brown campaign that I want you to take away from this forum, it is this. Anthony Brown [Mr. O'Malley's lieutenant governor running mate] and I believe passionately that, indeed, we are all going to the same place."

Then it was Mr. Duncan's turn.

"Here's the challenge we face in Maryland. It's not a question of whether you're in the back of the bus or the front of the bus. We want you to drive the bus or own the bus. But the challenge we face in Maryland is that too many in our society aren't even on the bus. So forget about being in the front or the back or driving or owning it. You're not on the bus. ... We don't have a government that reaches out to everyone in everything that we do. My commitment to you is that everyone is on the bus."

Referring then to his running mate, former Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms, he added, "That's our record. We're not rock stars. We're not rock stars. We're people who are very serious about getting the job done for the people of Maryland."

Mr. O'Malley, referred to in the press as a rock star and regarded as the more charismatic of the two, had no opportunity to respond. It was the luck of the draw.

But a candidate knows he'll have his opportunities. He just has to recognize them and act.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail address is

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