Ehrlich, O'Malley in 2 debates today

Details almost sank meetings, but both eager to argue

Maryland Votes 2006

October 14, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

After months of nasty television ads, hit pieces in the mail and long-distance squabbling, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley will sit down for two televised debates today, giving millions of Marylanders their first -- and probably only -- chance to measure the two major gubernatorial candidates side by side.

Both campaigns have been insisting for months that their candidates are itching to debate, but they've also been arguing about nearly every detail -- so much so, that as recently as a week ago, it looked as if Ehrlich and O'Malley might not debate at all.

Details of the second debate were still in sufficient dispute yesterday afternoon that it was unclear for a time whether it would be canceled.

But it wasn't, and now both campaigns say they're ready to make their cases.

For O'Malley, that means talking about his vision.

"The mayor is looking forward to sharing his positive statewide vision directly with the voters," said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. "The mayor will focus on moving our state forward on issues like education, health care and transportation."

For Ehrlich, that means talking about his record and O'Malley's failings.

"Since midsummer, Governor Ehrlich has been eager to debate Martin O'Malley on the issues," Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver said. "The interaction of a debate is the only way to clearly contrast Governor Ehrlich's record of accomplishment with Mayor O'Malley's record of broken promises and failed leadership."

Despite the campaigns' bravado, many in Maryland's political community say all the bickering over the details -- lectern or table, moderator or panel, timed responses or open-ended answers -- makes it seems as if neither side really wants to mix it up.

"Perhaps Ehrlich feels that as the incumbent governor, having a debate puts O'Malley on par with him," said Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has served as an occasional adviser to the O'Malley campaign, though not on the question of debates.

"But because O'Malley is leading [in polls], perhaps there's no incentive for him to have debates because it only gives Ehrlich a chance to catch up," Schaller said. "They're both locked in a corner, so perhaps they'd prefer not to debate at all, but the social and political pressure to have debates would penalize them both."

O'Malley has said scheduling conflicts have prevented him from appearing at some proposed debates. Ehrlich has refused to schedule any after this weekend, saying he wants to spend the final weeks of the campaign taking his message directly to voters.

The two have appeared on stage together twice, once for a disabilities forum and once for an AARP forum, but it appears likely that today's events will be the only televised debates of the campaign.

Green Party candidate Ed Boyd was not included in those forums and was not invited to today's debates. Boyd criticized his exclusion and said in a statement that O'Malley and Ehrlich "fear that the Green Party positions will stand out from theirs if I am included."

Despite acrimony that has been building between the two major party candidates for years, the debates appear unlikely to match the raucousness of the lone debate in the 2002 contest between Ehrlich and his Democratic opponent, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

That event, sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was held at Morgan State University in front of a crowd of 2,000, including some bused in from out of state. They booed Ehrlich's parents, covered his staff's cars with Townsend stickers and so thoroughly interrupted his opening statement that then-NAACP head Kweisi Mfume had to get on the stage to calm the crowd down.

This time, there will be no audience.

And how many people will see the debates is uncertain. The first, scheduled to take place at 1 p.m. at the studios of WJZ-TV in Baltimore, will be taped and broadcast Monday. The second is slated for the studios of Maryland Public Television in Owings Mills. It will be broadcast live on MPT and WBAL-TV, but the time slot -- 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. on a Saturday -- is hardly prime time.

Carol L. Hirschburg, a Republican consultant from Owings Mills who is close to the governor but not working on his campaign, said that after the debacle of the 2002 debate, it's probably safer for both sides to meet in a less-charged setting.

"I for one wouldn't want to subject myself to sitting in front of a bunch of O'Malley supporters," she said.

The planned format for the WJZ debate will have the candidates seated at a table with news anchor Denise Koch as the sole moderator. Candidate answers and rebuttals will not have time limits, although the amount of discussion on a particular topic will be restricted.

It is scheduled to be broadcast on Monday from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The second debate is sponsored by the Maryland League of Women Voters. The format calls for the candidates to be seated at a table for the questions and answers but to have the option of using a lectern for opening and closing statements.

Questions will come from two reporters. The chief dispute between the campaigns yesterday was over whether to include a third person from one of the state's major newspapers, but they eventually agreed to limit the panel to a representative of MPT and David Collins, a reporter for WBAL-TV.

Time limits for candidates' responses had not been made final last night.

andy.green@baltsun.com

Planned Debates

First: Taping 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. today at the Baltimore studio of WJZ-TV; broadcast on WJZ from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday.

Second: 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. today at Maryland Public Television and broadcast live on MPT and WBAL-TV.

No studio audiences.

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