A Valentine's Day agreement among the Democrats running for governor to cooperate on setting up debates collapsed Wednesday as his rivals accused front-runner Anthony G. Brown of ducking a third televised encounter.
The lieutenant governor's campaign insisted that the current schedule — two debates on statewide television and one on a Baltimore radio station — adhered to the original plan. But in a rare joint statement, the campaigns of Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather R. Mizeur said Brown had agreed to more — and that voters deserved more.
For Democrats trying to make a choice in the June 24 primary, the result is a limited number of opportunities to see their party's candidates sharing a stage.
"These formal and negotiated debates are the only ones where they're really going to be on the stage together and will interact," said political scientist Todd Eberly of St. Mary's College. He said the notion of having a debate exclusively on radio in 2014 "is absolutely and completely ridiculous. It would be more appropriate to have the debate on Twitter."
The campaign to succeed two-term Democrat Martin O'Malley is already characterized by a lack of interest, resulting in a vast number of undecided voters, according to recent polls.
"I think it's going to be an extraordinarily low-turnout election, which doesn't help when you govern," said former state Sen. Barbara Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat.
The candidates have agreed to a May 7 debate to be aired by Washington's NBC affiliate, WRC-TV (Channel 4) and moderated by "Meet the Press" host David Gregory. It had appeared that Baltimore-area viewers would be unable to watch it, but Maryland Public Television announced plans Wednesday to broadcast the Washington debate across the state.
A second Democratic debate, on June 2, will be hosted and aired by MPT, while a third is to be broadcast on radio station WOLB on an unspecified date and moderated by former state Sen. Larry Young.
A number of other possible debates had recently been in play. There have been discussions among the campaigns with Baltimore's WJZ-TV and WBFF (Fox45). The Fox station said Wednesday that it has "been negotiating for months" with the campaigns. Gansler's and Mizeur's campaigns said their candidates will appear on the Sinclair-owned station whenever the debate is scheduled, with or without Brown.
"We still hold out hope that everybody will be there," said Fox45 news director Mike Tomko. "Our assumption from the beginning was there were going to be three televised debates. Internally, that was the discussion we had with the campaigns. We'll continue to work with the Brown campaign to try to relieve any concerns they may have about coming on and doing the debate in Baltimore."
An MPT debate for the Republican candidates for governor will be held June 6. Participating will be Del. Ron George of Annapolis, former Ehrlich administration official Larry Hogan, Charles County business executive Charles Lollar and Harford County Executive David R. Craig.
On Feb. 14, the Democratic campaigns jointly issued a statement saying that Maryland Democrats "deserve to hear the candidates' views on the issues and we are committed to working in a cooperative manner to come up with a series of debates to meet that goal."
The campaigns had been working together on negotiating such details as venues, dates, moderators and formats.
But the cooperation splintered Wednesday as the Gansler and Mizeur campaigns accused Brown of failing to keep a deal for three TV debates.
Brown's campaign maintained that the agreement called for three debates — but not three televised debates. "Regrettably the Gansler and Mizeur campaigns have a strange view of history," said the statement by Justin Schall, Brown's campaign manager.
Because Democrats maintain a large registration advantage, the party's nominee is typically a heavy favorite in the general election.
Some observers lamented that televised debates are so rare. The candidates do appear around the state at forums, but they can be less useful because the candidates appear in succession rather than simultaneously.
Debates allow viewers to assess candidates with very different styles, said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College. "Anthony Brown is carefully polished and on message," Kromer said. "You have Doug Gansler, who is more apt to speak off the cuff. And then Heather Mizeur, who hasn't had equal air time with the other candidates."
In 2006, the last time there was no incumbent Democratic governor, O'Malley's only primary rival, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, withdrew before any debates. There was just one statewide prime-time televised debate in the 1994 Democratic primary, a comparable election to this one because it featured a multiple serious candidates.
Interest in this year's primary is expected to be light because of its unusually early date and because no Maryland seat in the U.S. Senate is being contested.
As for whether the scheduled debates will make a difference in the race, state House Speaker Michael E. Busch said this: "It depends on whether people are interested enough to tune in."
•May 7: Democrats debate on WRC-TV, Channel 4 in Washington. Also broadcast by MPT.
•June 2: Democrats debate on MPT
•June 6: Republicans debate on MPT.