When Maryland's gubernatorial candidates square off in Washington Thursday for their second and likely final televised debate, the pressure will be on Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to convince viewers in the Democrat-rich Washington suburbs that incumbent Gov. Martin O'Malley should be fired.
The challenge for O'Malley is to avoid the kind of mistake that could slow or reverse his apparent momentum in the gubernatorial contest less than three weeks before Election Day.
Ehrlich agreed to the second televised debate hours after the candidates' first meeting Monday, putting to rest weeks of wrangling and signaling that his campaign believes another live back-and-forth exchange will benefit his candidacy.
"Generally speaking, the more debates, the better for him," said Richard Cross, a former Ehrlich speechwriter who was critical of Ehrlich's first performance. "He needs this debate more than O'Malley does because he needs a game-changing moment."
The drawn-out debate over the debates came together only in the past two weeks as a pair of polls showed O'Malley breaking away from his competitor. Both camps have said they wanted multiple exchanges, and each has accused the other side of holding up negotiations. In addition to Thursday's debate, the candidates will also hold two live exchanges next week on radio stations.
Incumbents who are ahead in the polls tend not to want to risk their leads with frequent debates, said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. A candidate who is behind wants "to shake up the race and change the dynamics," he said.
But that can be difficult, Sabato added, because "the front-runner isn't a potted plant, and he has prepared his own attacks."
Sabato suggested debate performances are unlikely to have much impact on a race. Even a major gaffe, he said, rarely changes opinions for long.
"Voters often move on in a few days and return to their earlier attachment," he said.
Some Maryland analysts have expressed surprise that O'Malley agreed to so many debates.
"The O'Malley people may be saying, 'We know how to do this. We do it well,' " said Donald Norris, who heads the department of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Monday's debate drew 150,000 viewers, a figure that matched interest four years ago and suggests that despite low turnout in the primary, voters might be paying attention to the top race in the state.
The rules of engagement Thursday will be similar to those of the first debate: After a topic is established, the moderator will allow a set period of back-and-forth exchange between the two men. The forum is sponsored by The Washington Post, WUSA and WAMU. Washington Post Live editor Mary Jordan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent, will moderate.
Each candidate said Wednesday that they expect different issues from those of the first debate, including the state's struggling pension system and proposed light rail projects, to emerge as topics.
Ehrlich said the tone might get heated.
"This is politics, and we disagree and it is a big-time race," he said. "But I enjoy it. This what it is about. You can be aggressive and you can show some emotion. People want emotion."
The rules allow unscripted moments. In perhaps a preview of what is to come, Ehrlich complained Wednesday that O'Malley had played "the race card" in the first debate, and said he would "take down" any misleading statements O'Malley might make.
Ehrlich was referring to O'Malley's accusation that he had used "very coded language" to criticize the state's failing schools, most of which are in predominantly black communities.
"I interpret it as a not-too-subtle call on race," Ehrlich said Wednesday. O'Malley had said he felt that Ehrlich as governor "was always talking Baltimore City down" and "always belittling the progress being made in Baltimore City."
Ehrlich also repeated a jab he made during the debate, saying O'Malley is unqualified to criticize his views on race after his performance as mayor of Baltimore, where he oversaw a "zero-tolerance" policy that attached criminal records for minor offenses to tens of thousands of black men.
"That was no way to run a city," Ehrlich said. "It is no way — you have very little standing to talk about race when you allow things like that to happen on your watch."
O'Malley defended his policies during the debate, saying that the strong policing saved lives.
Also on display during the freewheeling back-and-forth of the first debate were glimpses of what some have characterized as the candidates' hostility toward each other.
Despite their long rivalry, O'Malley said Wednesday he has no personal grudge against Ehrlich.
"I like him fine; we just have two different world views," he said. "I think he makes poor choices. I think he makes choices without regard to how it affects our progress as a people."
Ehrlich sidestepped the question Wednesday.
"I don't know Martin O'Malley," Ehrlich said. "I can't tell you that I like him or dislike him."
But he listed a number of earlier foes with whom O'Malley has fought publicly, including Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.
"If you are in his way, he tends to be very aggressive toward you," Ehrlich said. "Well, he can be aggressive toward me, but that doesn't really make a bit of difference."
Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie and David Zurawik contributed to this article.