Aides to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. say he'll be able to show the whole state his plans to address a wide range of issues affecting Marylanders.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's camp says she'll have the chance to strip Ehrlich of his ability to hide his conservatism in a state that leans toward Democrats.

They're both talking about tomorrow's televised debate - the first in this year's race for governor - which isn't quite a debate, and isn't even scheduled for live broadcast by any of the region's major TV stations.

The local chapter of the NAACP is acting as the host of the event, which is to be held at Morgan State University's performing arts center.

Yet so few details are firmly fixed for the debate's format that the affair is, to put it delicately, something of a mess. "This thing is so fluid right now that all of the options available to us have not been explained," said Bill Fine, general manager of WBAL-TV.

As a result, none of the network affiliates is planning to carry the event live. (The debut of major network programs at the same time - such as NBC's Friends and the second episode of CBS' Survivor - also made the prospect distinctly less appealing.)

Comcast, the region's dominant cable television provider, has promised to air the program live in the Baltimore area on its Philadelphia-based cable news station, CN8, while cable's NewsChannel 8 will do so in the Washington area. Maryland Public Television (Channels 22 and 67) and WBFF (Channel 45) were planning to tape it and broadcast it at 10:30 p.m. tomorrow night. Several other stations are weighing showing it later in the week.

On the national level, aides to presidential candidates have been known to argue over the height of rostrums, the temperature of the convention hall, or the angles used by television cameras. "We have candidates who are sweaters," said Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., the former Republican party chief who is now co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates. "Some of them have bald spots."

The logistical knots being untangled in the Baltimore governor's race were more fundamental.

Here's what was set as of last night:

The event is to begin at 8 p.m., and to last no more than 90 minutes, said Neil Duke, a local attorney and Baltimore NAACP official who is scheduled to serve as the moderator. Ehrlich had pushed for a longer event and Townsend for less. A few days ago, the NAACP plucked 80 minutes out of the air, only to make it 1 1/2 hours because the length was so unusual.

"The respective campaigns could reach very little common ground over the weekend," said Paul E. Schurick, a spokesman for Ehrlich, the Baltimore County congressman who is the Republican nominee. "The NAACP decided that it was not going to wait for the campaigns."

The starting time for the event changed repeatedly over the course of the day yesterday, to the point where the campaigns themselves appeared unclear about when it would begin. "The only time we agreed to debate is 7 p.m.," Shareese N. DeLeaver, another Ehrlich aide, said last night. "If there is a change, we want to find out about it."

Six journalists are to pose questions to the two candidates. Only two have been named: Wiley Hall, editor of the Baltimore Afro-American, and Anthony McCarthy, associate publisher of the Baltimore Times. Reporters from the Associated Press, The Sun and MPT have also been approached.

There are to be two rounds of questioning, with specific queries aimed at one candidate or the other. During the first round, each candidate will have three minutes to respond to a question, and the other can make a minute-long rebuttal. In the second round, there will be no rebuttals.

At no time will the candidates question each other.

According to the latest information from campaign and NAACP officials, each candidate will be given the opportunity to play a biographical video. The candidates can also introduce their running mates: retired Adm. Charles Larson, who switched parties to join Townsend's campaign, and former state GOP party chairman Michael Steele, Ehrlich's pick for lieutenant governor.

The candidates will each be able to reserve tickets for 250 people to attend at the Morgan State site, which seats more than 2,000. The others will be made available to students and citizens presumably unaffiliated with either campaign.

Ehrlich has been pushing for debates for months; only after the primary earlier this month did Townsend agree to a pair, with another for the running mates.

Both candidates have something to prove: Ehrlich, as a mainstream conservative Republican in a state where Democrats have a major edge, is looking to show his ease on issues affecting the city, particularly at an event held at a historically black campus moderated by a civil rights organization.

Earlier this month, Schurick remarked that the national NAACP would be an unlikely selection as a neutral broker of a debate, because it had given Ehrlich failing marks on its annual scorecard for congressional votes. But Ehrlich quickly embraced the idea of the local chapter as a sponsor.

Townsend, saddled with the perception that she can be tongue-tied at times, is seeking to show her command of language and policy, and to brand Ehrlich as out-of-step with Maryland.

"The main goal of the debate is to put all the issues on the table," said Kate Philips, a spokeswoman for Townsend, the state's Democratic lieutenant governor. "There are real, specific differences between Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Bob Ehrlich - differences in their visions, their platforms and most clearly on their records."

Fahrenkopf, who arranges the presidential debates, said other formats - such as a single moderator pursuing follow-up questions - allow viewers to learn more about those candidates seeking their votes.

"It's not only the answers," Fahrenkopf said. "It's the perception of how this person reacts under the pressure. And, interestingly enough, people tend to elect people they like."

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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