GOP gubernatorial candidates debate

GOP gubernatorial candidates, from left, David R. Craig, Ron George, Larry Hogan and Charles Lollar face off in a debate at Salisbury University. ( Todd Dudek, Salisbury Times / May 31, 2014)

— The four Republican candidates for governor of Maryland focused their fire on the O'Malley administration and avoided criticizing each other as they met Saturday night in the first televised debate of this year's GOP primary contest.

Harford County Executive David R. Craig, Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel County, former Ehrlich administration official Larry Hogan and Charles County business executive Charles Lollar vied to see who could describe the state's economic circumstances in more dire terms.

"We don't just have a bad business reputation. It's actually a fact," said Hogan. "This may be the last chance to turn this state around before it's too late."

Republican voters will choose a nominee June 24.

While all four agreed that the last eight years under Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown have been an economic disaster for Maryland, they offered somewhat different prescriptions for curing what they see as the state's toxic business climate.

Craig and Lollar both laid out plans to phase out Maryland's personal state income tax, while George called for a somewhat less ambitious immediate 10 percent cut in that tax.

Hogan did not offer a specific plan on the income tax, saying he would focus first on cutting spending and then see how many of O'Malley's tax increases he could roll back.

Craig gave a nod to gun rights, and Lollar issued a rousing call for term limits, but for the most part the candidates focused almost exclusively on the economy.

"This is about the economy. That is all it's about, this election," George said.

Craig took a particularly aggressive approach to tax-cutting, not only calling for elimination of the personal income tax but advocating a reduction in the corporate income tax by more than half. On Saturday night, he added a call to roll back tolls and to eliminate the so-called "flush tax" adopted under the Republican administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to pay for improvements to the state's sewer systems to cut nutrient discharges to the Chesapeake Bay.

All four candidates promised to restore one form of state spending that was severely cut by the O'Malley administration during the national economic downturn — aid to local government for highway repairs. Craig described that cut as "robbery."

Each of the candidates touted their individual qualifications to lead state government. Hogan promoted his experience in the executive branch of state government and long career in the private sector. Craig boasted of his budget-balancing and job-attracting record as county executive. George presented himself as a small businessman and a lawmaker who has been on the front lines in fighting O'Malley policies for the past eight years. Lollar played the role of passionate outsider aligned against career politicians.

Perhaps the most provocative proposal came from George in response to a question about how to help the Eastern Shore. He suggested a constitutional convention to change the political balance of power to something closer to what existed before the Supreme Court's one-man, one-vote decision. He later clarified that he wasn't actually suggesting a return to the time when small rural counties had just as many state senators as large jurisdictions such as Baltimore or Anne Arundel counties.

The circumstances of the debate, on the Salisbury University campus on a Saturday night and broadcast live only on the Eastern Shore, underscored the minority status and largely rural roots of the Maryland Republican Party. The taped event will be broadcast statewide on Maryland Public Television at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

None of the candidates for the Republican nomination has stockpiled nearly as much as any of the three Democratic contenders. As of last week's required filing, Hogan had a clear edge with nearly $390,000 in the bank. Craig reported $144,000 in cash on hand. George and Lollar lagged behind with $40,000 and $18,000 respectively. Even the least-well-funded Democratic candidate, Del. Heather R. Mizeur, had nearly $1 million.

What little independent polling has been done on the race suggests that most Republican voters are undecided. In February, a Baltimore Sun poll found that two-thirds had not made up their minds. Hogan led the pack then with only 13 percent of the vote.

The four GOP contenders are expected to meet to tape another debate Monday afternoon at the MPT studios in Owings Mills. That event will not be broadcast on MPT until 7 p.m. Friday.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com