A Missed Chance for a Real Debate

Many voters will be surprised to learn this, but there is an election campaign going on for one of Maryland's seats in the U.S. Senate.

Faithful TV watchers noticed ads for Sen. Barbara Mikulski popping up recently, but for many of them this was the first clue she was running for re-election in November. Alert newspaper readers saw some articles in the past couple of months about the problems of Alan Keyes, her Republican opponent. But stories or film clips of them campaigning? Not many.


This lack of traditional electioneering is unfortunate for several reasons. Maryland is blessed this year with two unusually articulate advocates from both ends of the domestic political spectrum.

Ms. Mikulski, the feisty Baltimore Democrat, is an old-style liberal who looks to government for solutions to the country's social and economic programs. Mr. Keyes, the thoughtful Montgomery County conservative, wants to turn control over public functions to neighborhoods and similar tiny clusters of citizens. How refreshing it would be to hear them expound their different approaches so that voters could think them over.


Each has made some stabs at the issues. Both have done some hand-shaking around the states, occasionally chatting with small groups of voters. Mr. Keyes has sponsored a couple of forums on business and education and issued some position papers. Ms. Mikulski has spoken at some meetings, but they have mostly been pep rallies for the Democratic faithful.

ZTC They will meet at 8.30 p.m. Monday in a debate telecast on all Maryland Public Television stations in the familiar questions-by-reporters format. They debated on a Washington radio station this week. That's about it.

Mr. Keyes would like to have more opportunities to debate Ms. Mikulski, but she has sidestepped them. Like all challengers, especially those in desperate need of public exposure, Mr. Keyes complains that the senator is avoiding him. Like all incumbents and front-runners, Ms. Mikulski isn't interested in helping him get free air time. She is playing it safe, taking no chances. She has nothing to gain from a debate, against the potential -- however remote -- of losing ground to Mr. Keyes by stumbling badly.

But the rest of the campaign has been pretty much the same -- Mr. Keyes casting about for an issue that will ignite public interest or get his opponent's dander up.

Ms. Mikulski has been taking no chances on the hustings, either. She has made some quickie forays through shopping centers and the like, appearing at festivities like the Columbus Day parade and warming up party workers for Election Day. She plugs the local congressional candidates, one or two of whom may need her coattails.

Neither Ms. Mikulski the pro -- she is a former Baltimore city council member as well as member of the House of Representatives -- or Mr. Keyes the neophyte -- he ran against Sen. Paul Sarbanes four years ago -- works a crowd assiduously. Observed at a half dozen appearances in recent weeks, both seemed to be making the least of their opportunities rather than the most. Stopping to chat briefly with a few people but not working the crowd in the traditional style was Ms. Mikulski's forte. Mr. Keyes, ever the intellectual, was more interested in a lengthy discussion with one or two people rather than shaking every hand in the house.

For different reasons neither of them had to do the traditional hand-shaking. Ms. Mikulski knew she would be reaching people by the tens of thousands in a barrage of TV advertising in the last weeks before Election Day. For Mr. Keyes the occasional handshake was a drop in the ocean -- he needed to shake peoples' minds, and he could not afford the vehicle to accomplish that.

It's not often these days of sound bites and political posturing that voters can really complain, "Where's the beef?" Usually it isn't available at all. This year it could have been in Maryland. We had two candidates for high office who had the brains to understand the problems plaguing our society and economy, and the eloquence to enlighten us about them.


All the better that they were poles apart politically. Think what a series of Lincoln-Douglas style debates could have been. Maybe a lot of voters still would not have paid heed. But some of them would have, and perhaps they would have been just a little more demanding of other candidates -- like George Bush and Bill Clinton.

James S. Keat is editorial-page coordinator for The Baltimore Sun.