The Debate, Part Deux: The first will be last

October 15, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Good morning, my fellow Merlinders, and welcome to Sunday, Oct. 15 - the day after the second gubernatorial debate and the day before the first. ... Weird stuff, I know - day after the second debate, day before the first.

But seriously, that's where we are, and here's how we got here:

Gov. Robert Ehrlich, the Republican candidate with the sharp-edged hair, and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the Democratic candidate with less and less hair all the time, squared off yesterday in a debate double-header.

WJZ-TV taped one debate at 1 p.m., for air tomorrow night.

Six hours later, the candidates engaged in a second debate - live, in color - on Maryland Public Television and WBAL-TV.

It's as if they played a doubleheader, except that viewers won't get to see the first game until 48 hours after they see the second game.

For those who missed the live debate between Ehrlich and O'Malley - because it was Saturday night and you have a life - I'll say this: You missed some fine sniping. I usually have low expectations for these things. But last night's debate was pretty good - two smart and sarcastic 40-somethings giving as good as they got.

I can't say that Monday's debate will be better.

It won't be.

But, as these things go, it's not chopped liver.

Let's go to the highlights.

Style points: O'Malley acted as if he were running for president of the United States and Ehrlich acted as if he were running for president of Chi Phi. O'Malley studied for the oral exam; Ehrlich winged it. O'Malley dipped into speechifying and seemed practiced in playing to the camera; Ehrlich spoke in the chummy, snappy style of talk radio.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

O'Malley at times expressed his ideals in lyrical prose, while Ehrlich spoke more off the cuff, down to earth, quantifying his record and dismissing O'Malley's claims of success in the city at every turn.

O'Malley presented himself as a man of the people - particularly during the BGE rate-increase fiasco - and portrayed Ehrlich as a sell-out to special interests and big corporations. He accused Ehrlich of giving the Public Service Commission a "lobotomy."

Ehrlich focused on Baltimore's chronic failings as a reflection of O'Malley's leadership, portrayed himself as a change agent who went to Annapolis to put a stop to big spending by Democrats, and accused O'Malley of playing "class warfare" in the BGE mess.

In the taped debate - remember, I'm talking about the first one that airs second - O'Malley and Ehrlich sat at something like a TV news desk, with the anchorwoman, Denise Koch, between them.

The show opened with Ehrlich giving a statement, but it was this gee-thanks-for-having-this-debate thing, with thanks to Denise for missing the Navy football game to be there.

O'Malley actually had an opening statement, and, unlike Ehrlich, he looked directly into the camera when he spoke.

First question from Koch was about education.

Ehrlich boasted success across the state and expressed grave concern for the quality of public education in O'Malley's city, mentioning particularly bad high school graduation rates and reminding everyone about O'Malley's opposition to a state takeover of the city's worst schools.

O'Malley came back with a litany of improvements in student performance, and for the first time unleashed his "two Bob Ehrlichs" line. There's a Bob Ehrlich who cares about education in an election year, O'Malley said, and a Bob Ehrlich who cuts funding and raises tuition at Maryland colleges.

"I think you just set a record for misrepresentations," Ehrlich countered, expressing concern for the "intolerable" rate of failure of Baltimore students.

O'Malley knocked back at Ehrlich for being so negative, dismissing improvements in city schools and taking "cheap shots." This was a recurring O'Malley criticism, accusing Ehrlich of practicing the politics of division and cynicism, and arriving late to the city's needs.

There were many moments in the debate when the styles and philosophies of the two men played out quite clearly. A couple of times, Ehrlich dismissed O'Malley when the mayor's prose reached rhetorical summits.

At one point, Koch asked about leadership, and O'Malley drifted into one of his speeches:

"We don't want the leadership of cynicism, of negativity," he said, "but the politics of hope and the politics of dreams and the politics of we're all in this together so that our tomorrows can be better than our todays. We could make a lot more progress if we had a governor who practiced the politics of bringing people together."

The WJZ director switched camera shots to Ehrlich. Ehrlich, looking bewildered, paused and said: "I don't know what all that means."

It reminded me, in the moment, of the Saturday Night Live debate sketch from 1988, when John Lovitz (as Michael Dukakis) said of Dana Carvey (as George H.W. Bush): "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy."

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Try your luck at Dan's Maryland Politics Quiz at baltimoresun.com/rodricksquiz.

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