In a 90-minute face-off marked by verbal cuts and sarcasm, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. sharply attacked each other's records and political promises last night as they debated for the first time in Maryland's gubernatorial campaign.
Neither candidate broke new ground in the ragged debate, repeating themes they've emphasized through the campaign.
Townsend argued that Ehrlich's congressional record shows he has turned his back on schoolchildren, minorities and the poor. Ehrlich said Townsend lacks the experience to lead the state and almost four decades of Democratic rule has led to arrogance and budget shortfalls.
Before a racially diverse audience of more than 2,000 at Morgan State University, much of the debate - sponsored by the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - focused on issues relevant to minorities and Baltimore, including affirmative action, public schools, Maryland's historically black universities and programs for the poor.
"He opposes affirmative action based on race," Townsend said. "Slavery was based on race. Lynching was based on race. Discrimination was based on race. Jim Crow was based on race. Affirmative action should be based on race."
Ehrlich repeatedly spoke of how proud he was to run with his African-American running mate, Michael S. Steele, and questioned Townsend's assertions that his voting record showed he was insensitive to the interests of minorities.
"Ma'am, when did I vote against affirmative action? What vote?" Ehrlich asked Townsend. "What I said is [I support] affirmative action based on lack of wealth. Based on economic deprivation."
Ehrlich also pledged that his campaign is going "places Republican candidates have never gone before, and we're not afraid to do it."
Townsend shot back, to cheers from the crowd, "This is not Star Trek. African-Americans are not aliens."
The beginning of last night's debate was marred by jeering of Ehrlich during his opening remarks, booing that became so disruptive that NAACP National President Kweisi Mfume took the podium from Townsend to admonish the crowd.
"We have to be dignified in our approach, no matter where we stand on these issues," said Mfume, who used to serve in Congress with Ehrlich. "On behalf of all the citizens of this great state, allow us to have a debate where all the issues can be heard."
Throughout the debate, Ehrlich and Townsend stood on opposite ends of the stage of Morgan's Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center, separated by a panel of five journalists and the debate moderator.
The panelists were Tom Stuckey of the Associated Press, Wiley A. Hall III of The Baltimore Afro-American, Anthony W. McCarthy of The Baltimore Times, C. Fraser Smith of The Sun and free-lance journalist Lillie S. Hamer.
Political observers said the candidates showed voters clear distinctions.
"I think it was a good debate and I think it was good they rolled up the sleeves," said Ken Broda-Bahm, a professor of communications at Towson University. "They rolled them up farther than I thought they would."
From her opening statement, Townsend launched into the attacks on Ehrlich's congressional record that have become a hallmark of her campaign appearances - that he voted to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education and supported cuts in federal health care aid.
"The congressman voted for a cut in Medicaid," the lieutenant governor said. "If that's his idea of helping Medicaid, I wish he'd go to a different state. That's not our idea of helping Medicaid."
Townsend emphasized that she has put out a 32-page blueprint of what she would do, as well as a plan released yesterday morning for dealing with Maryland's projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall.
"My budget plan would pass the legislature. Your budget plan doesn't even pass the laugh test," Townsend said.
But Ehrlich argued that Townsend and Gov. Parris N. Glendening should be held accountable for the state's fiscal woes and spoke of the need to "change a political culture in this state" that is "expensive and negligent and corrupt and sloppy."
"Families have to pay their bills. The state has to pay its bills," he said. "The tab came due and it has your name on it."
Responding to Townsend's attacks on his congressional record, Ehrlich said votes are being taken out of context and repeatedly reminded her that she has never been elected to office on her own.
Ehrlich has been elected to the General Assembly twice and has won four elections to Congress. Townsend lost a campaign for Congress in 1986 and was twice elected as the running mate to Glendening.
"Lieutenant governor, with all due respect, you've never been elected to anything at any time on your own," the Baltimore County congressman said.
"You've never had to vote on war or abortion or tort reform or the budget or anything."
Townsend responded that governors and lieutenant governors don't take votes. "As governor, you put together budgets, you set priorities," she said.
Going into last night's debate, Ehrlich and Townsend each faced challenges - particularly with the most recent public polls showing that Ehrlich has a narrow, but statistically insignificant, lead over Townsend.
Townsend, whose verbal missteps have been widely chronicled, sought to project the image of a confident candidate who could articulately argue her positions.
She seemed to deftly poke fun at her occasional speaking gaffes, which once included talking about the Baltimore Ravens "scoring a football."
When she inadvertently said last night that she had "been in charge of crime for the last eight years" - meaning to say she had overseen anti-crime efforts - she laughed and said, "I guess that's what's called a football."
"I think this should put to rest the question of her intelligence," said Richard E. Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University. "I think she is intelligent. She is not a perfect communicator, but I think she is quite able to articulate precisely what her positions are."
Ehrlich focused on portraying himself as a moderate Republican, while trying to avoid being seen as too aggressive or glib.
"I fell really comfortable running on this record after 16 years in this state, my state," Ehrlich said.
He spoke of winning 70 percent of the vote in being re-elected in a congressional district that is 37 percent Republican and includes 55,000 African-Americans.
Townsend chided Ehrlich for labeling himself a moderate, saying he supports vouchers for families to use public funds for private school tuition and opposes tougher gun control measures.
"You can be honest about who you are, what you're true to, rather than talk about something else," Townsend said.
After the debate, Townsend - whose father was Sen. Robert F. Kennedy - walked off the stage and received a hug from former U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings. "Your daddy would have been proud, you really laid him out," he told her.
Townsend acknowledged that her husband, David, had provided the Star Trek response. "Wasn't that a great line?" she asked.
Ehrlich and Steele said they thought Townsend debated well. But they said they were insulted by some of her attacks and accused her of playing the "the race card."
"In this campaign there is no place for race; we have matured beyond that, Marylanders want something better," Steele said. "I am tired about it, it ends tonight. If you want to play the race card, do it somewhere else. ... African-Americans do not need to be dumbed down by race."
The widely anticipated debate came after months of squabbling between Ehrlich and Townsend over facing off.
Ehrlich has spent months calling for many debates, but Townsend rejected even starting negotiations until both officially won their parties' nominations in this month's primary - a formality because each faced only token opposition.
Yet last night's debate might be the only one of the campaign. Though Townsend and Ehrlich have said they want more, negotiations between the two campaigns over scheduling additional dates broke off last week.
This morning, both candidates will speak at a mental health forum in Woodlawn, though they will appear separately.
Nor was it clear last night how many Marylanders watched the debate. The only live telecast appeared on cable television, and it went up against the season premiere of the popular show Friends and the second episode of Survivor.
Several broadcast networks showed a tape of the debate later last night.
Sun staff writers Jeff Barker, Tim Craig, Stephanie Desmon, Sarah Koenig, David Nitkin and Ivan Penn contributed to this article.