Ehrlich, O'Malley wrangle over debates

Agreeing to debate doesn't come naturally for O'Malley, Ehrlich

August 12, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

They both say they are ready, willing and eager to meet and argue their ideas before the voters.

But in a repeat of the strained negotiations of four years ago, arranging a debate between Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is itself turning into a debate.

Aides to the candidates have been working to nail down one or more broadcast debates before the Nov. 2 election. It's no small task, given their differing styles: Ehrlich, who hosted a talk radio show for much of the past four years, prefers a "freewheeling" format, with no time limits on questions and answers. O'Malley favors a more traditional approach, with a neutral moderator and orderly back-and-forth.

The gubernatorial "debate debate" went public Thursday, when Ehrlich's communications director, Henry Fawell, released a letter to O'Malley's campaign manager, Tom Russell.

"I am confident our respective campaigns will agree that holding multiple public debates is the best way for the citizens of Maryland to learn about the two leading gubernatorial candidates," Fawell wrote. He proposed three television and two radio debates, with untimed responses.

Russell released a statement saying the governor "will be happy to debate whoever is the Republican nominee after the primary." O'Malley supporters floated the idea that Ehrlich's sudden interest in debates — a topic that hasn't come up publicly in four months — was evidence of weakening momentum in his campaign.

Ehrlich hasn't released his latest campaign finance report, but he has indicated to supporters that he was trying to hit $3 million. O'Malley reported raising $3.3 million since the legislative session ended in mid-April. And a week ago, conservative darling Sarah Palin endorsed an underdog Republican candidate, Brian Murphy, giving him a boost in name recognition.

Ehrlich's spokesman, Andy Barth, said the Thursday release of the debate proposal was not meant as a diversionary tactic.

"It comes out of the approaching date of the election," Barth said. The general election is 81 days away. "We wanted to get started. We had been working on it, and nothing will happen if somebody doesn't take the initiative. We took that initiative."

Ehrlich included specifics for each of his proposed debates. One would be moderated by former Sen. Larry Young, a Democrat who represented Baltimore until his colleagues voted him out for ethics violations. Young hosts a talk show on WOLB-AM and is friendly with Ehrlich, though O'Malley has appeared on his show, too.

Another debate would be moderated by Bruce DePuyt of WJLA-TV in Washington, where longtime aide Greg Massoni once worked.

Ehrlich wants four of the five debates to include "no timed responses" — a format O'Malley dislikes. Ehrlich has not issued his preference for the fifth, which he suggests be a radio debate hosted by the Baltimore Jewish Council.

"It's important that all debates have a format that requires candidates to get beyond talking points and campaign spin and truly answer important questions," said O'Malley's spokesman, Rick Abbruzzese.

Todd Eberly, acting director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College, said it was politically wise to put out a detailed list of debate demands, as Ehrlich did.

"You almost want the other side to say no because that gives you a talking point," said Eberly, who identifies himself as "nonpartisan" and says he has never worked for a political candidate.

O'Malley's aides say the governor has agreed to multiple debates this year, including three venues on Ehrlich's list: a debate hosted by the Baltimore Jewish Council, one with Richard Sher, host of Square Off on Baltimore's WMAR-TV, and one on Washington-based WTOP Radio.

If history is any indication, these common denominators are likely to be far outweighed by differences.

Nitpicking by both campaigns four years ago resulted in two hastily arranged debates, taped on the same day in mid-October, just weeks before the election. One aired on WBAL and Maryland Public Television and had two reporters asking questions; the other was on WJZ and MPT, with an anchor as moderator.

Political observers predict the social pressure and the slim margin between the two, according to recent polls, will drive the candidates to agree to at least one debate — eventually.

Typically, it's the underdog who presses for debates. This week, Murphy tried to interest Ehrlich in a joint appearance on Washington radio station WMAL. Barth said Thursday that the Ehrlich campaign is focused on arranging terms with O'Malley. In a release, Murphy said Ehrlich was trying to "sidestep" the Republican primary.

Because Ehrlich and O'Malley have wide name recognition, it's unclear which of them would push harder for a debate with the other.

"Conventional wisdom is that with two well-known candidates, debates don't change many minds," Eberly said. "But with an incredibly close race, a few thousand voters here and there matters."

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