Candidates for governor inch toward debate plan


As the bickering between the two campaigns for governor over the prospect of political debates continued yesterday, the candidates have at least started talking about the possibility of their first match.

In public, they accuse each other of stalling, but over the weekend the two campaigns began trying to resolve their differences in very preliminary discussions. If yesterday is any indication, they still have a lot of talking to do.

Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had asked Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to debate him this week on issues important to African-Americans. Ehrlich sent the lieutenant governor a letter Friday - one he also shared with the news media - asking for the debate at Coppin State College.

But the Townsend campaign refused to respond to the letter, calling it a public relations ploy. "Anytime they would like to send us a letter and not [copy] it to the entire Maryland press corps, we will take it seriously," said Peter S. Hamm, a Townsend campaign spokesman. "Absent of that, we will see them as gimmicks and ignore them."

Two weeks ago, Townsend suggested two televised debates, which Ehrlich dismissed as too few. Instead of responding to the congressman's letter Friday, Townsend has asked that both campaigns meet early this week to discuss the issue.

Ehrlich, in the meantime, is still waiting for a response to his letter, said Paul Schurick, a spokesman for him.

"They have not responded to our letter, so I think that is a fair indication that they don't want to debate at Coppin Sate College this week," Schurick said. "But the proposal is still on the table."

Despite the most recent impasse, future matches may be in the works.

In brief phone conversations over the weekend, representatives of both campaigns began laying the groundwork for more in-depth negotiations.

"It's time for all of us to behave like grown-ups and stop talking about who responded to what letter," said Hamm, noting both campaigns have agreed to keep any future negotiations private.

It's not the first time gubernatorial candidates have had trouble setting up public debates.

In the 1998 contest, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey negotiated for several weeks, eventually agreeing to only one debate. The candidates also appeared together on CNN's Larry King Live show.

Townsend wants two televised debates covering a broad range of issues. Schurick said yesterday that Ehrlich wants as many as six debates, some of which would focus on specific issues such as economic development or crime.

"They like to talk in generalities, and I think it is far more important to talk about specifics," Schurick said.

Hamm said yesterday that Townsend might ultimately agree to more than two debates but that she does not want them limited to specific issues.

"Our view of debates is following the established model of a debate that covers as many subject areas as possible and that is open to the widest public audience," Hamm said.

Although political observers had thought this summer that Ehrlich had the most to gain from debates with Townsend, who has been prone to gaffes, the tide may be changing.

With polls showing a close race, and Townsend still struggling to shore up her Democratic base of support, some say the debates could help Townsend.

"There continues to be some voter negativity toward her, and there are even a lot of Democrats out there that don't know who she is or what she stands for," said Theodore Sheckels, professor of communication at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. "If she debated well, she could clear that image."

Sheckels, who is studying the Maryland governor's race, says debates could also benefit Townsend's effort to portray Ehrlich as being too conservative.

On Thursday, Ehrlich told a convention of children's advocates that he and the Children's Defense Fund, a national child advocacy group, don't "agree on anything." On Friday, he said that as governor he intends to review the effectiveness of two gun-control laws approved by the General Assembly.

"I think that he is a very honest person, and when he is asked something, his instinct is to answer the question," said Republican consultant Carol L. Hirschburg.

Although Hirschburg said Ehrlich's candor could get him "in trouble" during a debate, she said Townsend faces possible pitfalls as well.

"She has to be afraid that the questioners in the debate are going to be vying with each other to find the question that is going to trip her up," Hirschburg said.

Despite the risks, both campaigns said yesterday that they hope for a quick agreement on the number of the debates, the format and sponsors.

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