Last week's debate was a moment for Democrats to savor


WHEN IT WAS over, the Democrats did everything but throw confetti. I looked for Bobby Zirkin. The Democrats gathered around Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as if she were a rock star, or a returning astronaut, or maybe even a real candidate for governor. Somewhere in the melee, impossible to reach now, was Zirkin.

He is a Democratic delegate from northwest Baltimore County. Thursday evening, he had trudged across the campus of Morgan State University, through the inky evening rain, his head shaking gloomily beneath a big umbrella.

"They're running this debate opposite Friends," he said. "Maybe that's good. People won't watch this thing."

Among Democrats heading into Thursday's gubernatorial debate, this was the consensus. There were polls that showed Townsend and Republican Robert Ehrlich running neck-and-neck. Gone was her 15-point lead of the summer. But, broken down, the polls were even scarier: Ehrlich with such commanding leads in Anne Arundel and Harford counties, and parts of Baltimore County, that they threatened to undo Townsend's strongholds in the city and the D.C. suburbs.

"I'm hearing a lot of nervous talk," Zirkin said.

A couple of hours later, the thing everybody heard was the remarkable reaction to the end of the gubernatorial debate. Inside the big Carl G. Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State, the Republican Ehrlich posed for a few pictures, and then everybody in his entourage quickly left. They said they had another engagement, a televised boxing match they wanted to watch.

The Democrats went nowhere, except slightly insane. They stayed and stayed. Forty-five minutes after the debate ended, they were still mobbing the beaming Townsend, still savoring a moment that few of them had anticipated.

Townsend had finally stood up for herself. Did she convince everyone she should be governor? Of course not. There were times when she was over-the-top shrill. It is possible to discuss affirmative action without bringing in slavery and lynching. It is possible to discuss common-sense gun control without implying aid to terrorists.

But the woman sometimes perceived as inarticulate and bumbling repeatedly laid out her philosophical differences with Ehrlich, and their divergent political histories.

And Ehrlich, previously cool on his feet, previously prodding Townsend for more and more debates, seemed like a college kid who hadn't bothered to study and figured he could snow the teacher with charm.

Does that mean he shouldn't be governor? Of course not. But it means that, on this night, and at this debate, Townsend showed up ready for a fight, and Ehrlich seemed stunned by her aggressiveness, and off balance.

She criticized Ehrlich for voting to cut student loans. "He got scholarships - but then voted against student loans," Townsend told the Morgan State crowd, some of whom were students. "Some of you wouldn't have gotten scholarships if he'd had his way."

Ehrlich's immediate response? "You've never been elected to anything in your life." A few moments later, he told Townsend, "I know you don't know about student loans." The line, a snide reference to her family wealth, drew groans from the crowd.

A few moments later, Ehrlich drew even bigger groans. He was asked about the "F" given him by the NAACP on its annual report card for legislators. Ehrlich replied that Townsend had told the Jewish Times that she couldn't imagine Jews not voting for her. (Actually, it was a Jewish Times reporter paraphrasing Townsend's remarks about reported slippage in Jewish voters' traditional ties to the Democratic Party.)

"You think all Jews vote alike," Ehrlich charged now, "so I guess you think all blacks think alike."

He carried this bizarre line of thinking a few more moments, then let it fade away. Minutes later, Townsend brought up corporate scandals. "You didn't take on those challenges" in Congress, she told Ehrlich.

His response? "I guess you're looking at your portfolio. I guess you know all about those companies."

The line, another snipe at Townsend's family wealth, again seemed out of context for a gubernatorial debate. It felt like somebody without a sufficient response, reduced to snapping, "So's your old lady."

And so, at evening's end, the Republicans dashed out of the building - some walked out during Townsend's closing statement -- and the Democrats lingered in celebration.

"She rejuvenated her campaign," said Bishop Robinson, the Democratic secretary of the state Department of Juvenile Justice.

"She acted like a governor," said Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, acknowledging some general doubt beforehand.

"Unbelievable," said Del. Bobby Zirkin, who had entered the building with such dread. "Who expected her to stand up like this?"

Among Republicans, Del. Jim Ports said, "Bobby walked into a lion's den. He was on the defensive from some of the questions, and from the crowd. I thought [Townsend] was nasty and mean-spirited."

So it goes. The Democrats tout Townsend, and the Republicans tout Ehrlich. It is what they do. But on this night, the Republicans took early leave. And the Democrats seemed as if they never wanted to let go of this moment.

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