Ehrlich, O'Malley offer debate series

Both camps want several encounters, more respectful proceedings than in 2002

Maryland Votes 2006


The two major party candidates for governor have both suggested a series of debates for this fall, saying they want to give voters the chance to contrast their competing visions for the state.

No details have been worked out, but Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley appear intent on more face-to-face encounters than voters got in the 2002 campaign, when Ehrlich and Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend appeared together only once before the election.

Ehrlich said in his letter that he wants "a series of general election debates in September and October," but O'Malley was more specific, suggesting five debates between the gubernatorial candidates and two between their running mates. O'Malley also listed several candidates forums he has already agreed to attend and suggested that the governor join him.

The one debate in 2002, which was sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and took place at Morgan State University, was a raucous affair. The auditorium was packed with Townsend supporters - many of them union members bused in from out of state - who booed and jeered so loudly at Ehrlich that then-NAACP head Kweisi Mfume had to interrupt the debate to beg for calm.

Both sides said they want a more civilized atmosphere this time.

"These debates should be substantive and conversational, giving voters a chance to go beyond sound bites and learn about how we intend to confront the challenges this state faces," Ehrlich said in his letter. "We owe the voters frequent, meaningful debates in a number of venues across the state that address their interests about what is best for the state of Maryland."

O'Malley campaign manager Josh White struck a similar tone in his letter, saying, "We believe that the stakes in this [year's] election warrant several opportunities, beginning in August, for the families of Maryland to evaluate the choices in this year's election and allow them the chance to see which of the candidates is on their side."

The way negotiations for debates are unfolding this year underscores the unusual nature of the contest. It is usually the role of the underdog to demand a high number of debates, on the theory that the favorite has more to lose than gain by allowing a challenger to share the stage.

Before he left the race last month, for example, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who trailed in the polls, frequently called on O'Malley and Ehrlich to debate him and criticized them for their refusals.

But now that the campaign is narrowed to two major party candidates, the roles of favorite and underdog are less clear - Ehrlich is the incumbent with the big edge in campaign cash, but O'Malley has a lead in all public polls and enjoys the benefits of the Democratic Party's 2-1 voter registration edge.

Ehrlich sent his proposal first, on July 19, and O'Malley's campaign manager sent his a day later, immediately after receiving the governor's letter.

"What's so fascinating about this particular election is that it's so competitive that I don't think that the typical kind of underdog-overdog generalization applies here," said James Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park. "The underdog in this case, Governor Ehrlich, is not behind by much, and you have Martin O'Malley, the challenger, immediately sending back the letter saying, `Let's go all-out.'"

Ehrlich campaign spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said the governor definitely wants more than one debate this year. But whether the candidates have as many as O'Malley wants will depend on negotiations between senior staffers at the campaigns, she said.

Richard Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University, said it's hard to imagine the public paying attention to more than one or two gubernatorial debates. Even one debate for the running mates might be a stretch, he said.

Vatz, a longtime friend of Ehrlich, said there's enough animosity between the two candidates that they could probably debate each other indefinitely on any topic. But Vatz said he doesn't see a long string of debates as conveying an advantage on either Ehrlich or O'Malley.

"Everybody wants debates because they view a debate as being to their advantage," Vatz said. "But I would tell you that when you have two candidates whose support is stable, the debates make very little difference, even when there is a lot of nastiness between the two candidates."

Green Party gubernatorial candidate Ed Boyd's campaign manager, Myles Hoenig, said the public won't pay much attention to debates between O'Malley and Ehrlich because the two don't offer a sufficient choice to the voters. Boyd has not been included in the debate negotiations, nor has Progressive Party candidate Christopher A. Driscoll.

Hoenig said Boyd would bring up ideas the major party candidates wouldn't, such as public ownership of electric utilities and a halt to plans for the Inter-County Connector between Interstates 270 and 95.

"What they're getting is variations of the same positions, where what we have to offer would be radically different and probably more in line with what most Marylanders believe," Hoenig said.

But getting left out is nothing new for Greens and other third-party candidates.

"We would expect fairness and all that," Hoenig said. "Well, no, we wouldn't expect it, but that's what we would want."

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