Ehrlich, O'Malley agree on debate

Taped forum to be televised this month

Maryland Votes 2006

October 05, 2006|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Breaking a weeks-long impasse over the scheduling of their first televised debate, campaign aides to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday they have agreed to record a face-off that will be broadcast on a Baltimore television station this month.

Though many details - including the format and whether a live audience will be present - have not been determined, the campaign aides said the candidates have agreed to conduct a debate Oct. 14 to be broadcast at 7 p.m. Oct. 16 by WJZ-TV. The station helped negotiate the arrangement.

A single debate - one that is not broadcast live - is a significant departure from a proposed series of encounters between the candidates first discussed weeks ago.

Nominees for governor faced each other in televised contests just once in each of the past two elections, and twice in 1994.

As late as yesterday morning, however, Ehrlich and O'Malley had been unable to agree on a single date, raising questions about whether there was time to conduct a forum before the Nov. 7 general election.

"This was something that was tossed on the table and something that, as opposed to not having a debate, was a suitable alternative," said Ehrlich campaign spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver. "Both campaigns have agreed [to it] at this point."

It is unclear whether the WJZ debate will be the only one conducted during the gubernatorial election. O'Malley, who is ahead in public opinion polls but who has raised less money, has called for several televised debates. But DeLeaver said yesterday that there has been no substantive movement toward scheduling future events.

"We're looking forward to debating ideas and moving forward," said O'Malley campaign spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. "That said, we're hopeful that the Ehrlich campaign will agree to other debates from now through Election Day."

The breakthrough came as both candidates were engaged in negotiations over scheduling - talks that were initially kept from public view but that had begun to emerge this week.

O'Malley declined to debate next week on WJZ because of scheduling conflicts, though his aides would not discuss what events the Democratic mayor had scheduled. Aides said Ehrlich would not debate after mid-October because the Republican governor would be too busy taking his message directly to voters.

The likelihood of a debate appeared to be at an all-time low yesterday morning, when O'Malley said at a news conference that Ehrlich was "afraid to do a televised debate" and that he "doesn't want to see an exchange of ideas."

Despite the public animosity, both campaigns have been negotiating with Jay Newman, vice president and general manager of WJZ, to schedule a debate on the station. Neither the campaign spokespeople nor Newman would say who first suggested the idea of taping a debate and broadcasting it later.

"I have had a series of constructive discussions with representatives of both campaigns over the past 48 hours," Newman said in a statement yesterday. "Both campaigns late this afternoon informed me that they have agreed to a WJZ forum."

Still unresolved is the format, how the debate will be moderated - and by whom -and whether the debate will be broadcast on stations other than Baltimore-area WJZ, such as on Maryland Public Television, which has statewide reach. Also unknown is whether journalists will be allowed to attend the debate and whether there will be an audience at the taping. Audience reaction during a debate can often shape perceptions of candidate performance.

The O'Malley campaign has requested that reporters be permitted to observe the debate.

Despite its limitations, Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, said a single taped debate could be beneficial to voters - though he called the arrangement unusual. Multiple debates, he said, do not necessarily foster more public discussion of the issues because many voters may tune out after watching the first forum.

O'Malley and Ehrlich have met twice before in the past several weeks, once on Sept. 5 at a forum on disabilities in Baltimore and again Sept. 14 at a Timonium event hosted by the Maryland chapter of AARP. Neither was televised.

Four years ago, Ehrlich called for multiple debates, but his Democratic opponent at the time, then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, rejected the idea of starting negotiations until both candidates had won their primaries. The two held one debate, on Sept. 26, which was broadcast on Maryland Public Television.

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