After weeks of wrangling, the gubernatorial debate is set for tonight. Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend will meet at 8 p.m. for their first -- and perhaps only -- televised face-off.
With less than six weeks until the election and polls showing the race tied, political analysts say the event could be a turning point in the campaign.
"A lot of people perceive debates as a nuclear weapon in the campaign arsenal, and that it is," said Richard Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University.
But whether it is really a debate depends on which campaign you ask.
An Ehrlich spokesman is refusing to call the event a debate because the candidates will be answering a panel's questions and will not be allowed to question each other.
"This isn't a debate; this is a Broadway play," said Paul E. Schurick, an Ehrlich spokesman. "We have actors rehearsing ... for a highly scripted, very tightly controlled candidates forum."
Len Foxwell, a Townsend spokesman, replied, "The Ehrlich campaign better realize politics is not a performance art. It is a serious discussion about policies."
Ehrlich and Townsend say they have been preparing for the 90-minute match at Morgan State University for several weeks.
The debate comes as both candidates are trying to define themselves to voters before the opposition does it for them.
But the candidates have different messages they want to get out -- and pitfalls they want to avoid -- at the debate, sponsored by the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Townsend, who has watched her 15-point lead over Ehrlich evaporate, said she plans to highlight Ehrlich's voting record in Congress while proving she is qualified to be governor.
"I want to make sure voters can see the differences between my record and his record," Townsend said.
Ehrlich, who Democrats say is too conservative, plans to talk about his experience in Congress and offer a moderate platform, his campaign said.
"He is going to present his record and his plans to balance the budget, fix criminal justice and relieve traffic," Schurick said.
Neil E. Duke, vice president of the Baltimore NAACP chapter, will moderate the debate with a panel of five journalists asking questions.
Comcast cable subscribers can watch the debate live on Channel 8. WBFF Fox 45, WBAL and Maryland Public Television plan to rebroadcast the debate later in the evening.
Although the debate will be competing against the premiere of several network television shows, political observers said, the candidates should treat it like one of the most important events in the campaign.
"This is extremely important for both candidates because the race is so close," said Allan J. Lichtman, a professor of history at American University. "Each candidate has very large but very different obstacles to overcome."
Townsend supporters and political observers say the lieutenant governor has the difficult task of attacking Ehrlich's record without sounding like she is whining or being too negative.
"What she has to do is secure her base and say, 'Look, here is where he and I disagree and where my values trump his values,'" said Vatz, of Towson. "But depicting him as an evil, mean-spirited candidate won't fly."
Townsend -- who has participated in only two debates during her political career -- must also strive to avoid the verbal gaffes that dogged her earlier in the campaign, the experts said.
"She has to speak clearly and eloquently and not make mistakes," Lichtman said.
But that, too, could pose problems for Townsend.
Theodore Sheckels, professor of communication at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., said Townsend will turn off voters if she looks too scripted or programmed.
"I would advise her to be herself," said Sheckels, who is studying the race.
Vatz suggests that Townsend crack a joke or two about her sometimes choppy speech pattern.
"One way to defuse it is to make fun of it," said Vatz, pointing out that President Bush used the strategy during the 2000 election to overcome his tendency to misspeak.
Ehrlich's challenge, observers say, is to avoid Townsend's attempts to portray him as a conservative Republican on issues such as gun control, abortion and the environment.
"He has to talk about being a mainstream Marylander," said Republican consultant Kevin Igoe.
Igoe and others said Ehrlich -- who has been in at least seven debates during his political career -- should also try to link Townsend to the state's $1.7 billion budget deficit.
One potential problem for Ehrlich is his temper, observers said.
"He has a very short fuse, and he can rather quickly get annoyed," Sheckels said.
Lichtman said Ehrlich will generate sympathy for Townsend if he comes across as being "a bully."
Observers say tonight's performances by both gubernatorial candidates are all the more important because no other debates are scheduled.
Both campaigns said yesterday that they want more debates, but talks about future engagements broke down last week.
Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.
Where: Morgan State University, Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center.
When: 8 tonight.
TV: Live on Comcast cable Channel 8 in the Baltimore-Washington region; Channel 33 in Cambridge and Salisbury; Channel 15 in Ocean City.
Radio: Live on WEAA 88.9 FM