Scoring the contentious gubernatorial debates

October 18, 2006|By C. Fraser Smith

After two gubernatorial debates, we know more about the two leading candidates, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Mayor Martin O'Malley.

We might know even more had the two men spent less time glaring and sniping at each other.

Politics 101 suggests that Mr. O'Malley won - by showing up. But maybe both were winners by this measure.

Mr. O'Malley is less well-known statewide than the governor. And it was free media for a campaign with less money for TV. At the same time, Mr. Ehrlich has been behind in the polls in what looks like a Democratic year. So he needed the exposure, too.

What we got was a sometimes jarring collision of quite different personalities, making their respective cases, shouldering aside criticism and giving no quarter.

Herewith, a score card:

Poise and appearance: We address this aspect of the event because, as everyone knows, how you look on TV matters. Style is substance - and vice versa.

This measure is even more important in this race because both men have been criticized for seeming a bit young for the work. When he was in the Democratic primary, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan was thought of by his backers as the "grown-up" in the mix.

Which of the two remaining major-party candidates would inherit that mantle was one of the underlying questions to be answered in this debate.

The advantage goes to Mr. O'Malley, who seemed calmer, more prepared for the battle. Mr. Ehrlich - with his frowning game face dominating - seemed tense, reminiscent of Richard M. Nixon in his famous 1960 debate with John F. Kennedy. There seemed to be a bit more of the governor rummaging through papers and gesticulating than the cool television eye is comfortable with. More often, Mr. O'Malley spoke directly to the camera - to the audience. Mr. Ehrlich spoke to Mr. O'Malley, frequently, complaining that the mayor's off-camera asides were impinging on his time for answers. This seemed odd because Mr. Ehrlich accused the mayor of "whining" about this or that.

Energy: Mr. Ehrlich wins on this point. Though he was too dark and brooding, he was forceful in making the case for himself - more assertive than Mr. O'Malley, who came into the race with the aura of a rock star, a political dividend from his years as a guitar player in his Irish band. He didn't take advantage of it - or decided to bid for the mature mantle.

Facts: Just as truth is the first casualty of war, accuracy is at the top of the list in a political debate. Each man had command of the facts as he perceived and wished to communicate them.

Lofty themes: Mr. Ehrlich ceded this part of the contest to his opponent, who offered some rhetorical flourishes - which the governor said he didn't understand. What the governor meant was: "I'm not a flowery kind of guy, and I don't think you are either, Mr. and Mrs. Viewer."

This was a curious response for someone running in Maryland, which has some of the most well-educated citizens of any state. Mr. Ehrlich himself is a graduate of Princeton University and the Wake Forest University Law School, so it's unlikely that anything the mayor said was beyond him.

Risk-taking: Mr. O'Malley repeatedly referred to "the two Bob Ehrlichs," the one who attacks the city for failures in education and crime suppression but does little to combat either - until re-election year arrives. One of the governor's strengths is likability, so calling him two-faced is risky. Mr. O'Malley is saying, in effect, that the reputation is undeserved, built on political duplicity.

Gaffes: Mr. O'Malley said murders in his city had fallen below 200, clearly erroneous. His team said their man had misspoken, but in keeping with the tenor of the times, some commentators accused him of lying.

In what might be called a rhetorical gaffe, Mr. Ehrlich said Baltimore is a basket case: "I pay for you," he said. If not for state aid, the governor said, "you're done." Actually, taxpayers around the state "pay" something for virtually every jurisdiction, including Baltimore.

Maryland under their leadership: A clearer picture might have emerged had there been a little less animus coursing through the proceedings - but then again, maybe not. As the philosopher said, "Politics ain't beanbag."

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column usually runs on Sundays. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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