There could not have been a better argument for more debates between Maryland's two candidates for the U.S. Senate than the contrast between the final presidential debate and the local confrontation, which followed one another Monday night.
The second and third presidential debates were each livelier and more informative than the one before, as the candidates reacted to each other and to public critiques of their previous performances. If the debate between Sen. Barbara Mikulski and her opponent, Alan Keyes, had been the first of a series, we could look forward to greater enlightenment. But that is not to be.
There was no winner in the Mikulski-Keyes debate, but there was a loser: the public. The increasingly threadbare question-and-answer format allowed the two candidates to skip blithely from generalization to generalization. It served to whet the appetite of the thoughtful voter for more substance from two candidates who are capable of intelligent discussion of public policy and who take sharply different positions on some of the critical issues. More confrontations -- and perhaps adoption of the more debate-like format of the second presidential session -- would have left us all much more enlightened.
Still, the broad differences between the two candidates were delineated. Senator Mikulski is a traditional Democratic liberal who believes strongly in social welfare programs but was not pressed to explain how the country can pay for them. Mr. Keyes is a staunch Republican conservative, anxious to strip government to its barest essentials. He was able to explain briefly his theory of turning political power over to citizens at the local level. It is an intriguing idea that deserves -- even if it does not withstand -- close scrutiny. As it was, Ms. Mikulski could trump this argument simply by pointing out that is how she got her political start.
To their credit, neither candidate indulged in histrionics or mud-slinging. Midway in the debate Ms. Mikulski complained Mr. Keyes was "playing the blame game." He replied, properly, that her record in office was an issue. The Republican tried to convey informality (we guess) by wearing a cardigan sweater instead of a jacket. The last politician we can remember who did that was Jimmy Carter -- a poor model for Mr. Keyes in several respects.
For voters who are content with choosing between stereotypes, the decision Nov. 3 will not be difficult. The candidates made it clear they stand at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Voters who seek more specific information about how their U.S. senator will vote on the critical issues facing this nation will have to stay tuned -- not, unfortunately, for a few days but for the next six years.