Larson agrees to debate Steele on public television


Retired Adm. Charles R. Larson agreed yesterday to participate in a televised debate this week between candidates for lieutenant governor.

The debate - tentatively set for Thursday night in the Maryland Public Television studio in Owings Mills - would be broadcast statewide and mark the second major debate of the 2002 gubernatorial campaign.

But the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, Michael S. Steele, had not agreed to the debate as of last night. A spokeswoman for the campaign said it had not received an official invitation over the weekend.

If the meeting takes place, it would be the first televised debate between candidates for lieutenant governor in at least three elections. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend did not debate her opponents in either the 1994 or 1998 campaigns when she ran with Gov. Parris N. Glendening. It might even be the first ever in Maryland.

"I think there's always good interest in debates," said Robert J. Shuman, MPT's chief executive officer and president. "In the past, we've been quite successful in terms of putting on debates between the gubernatorial candidates, and we'd like to try to do the same with the candidates for lieutenant governor."

Shuman said he called the campaigns of Townsend and Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on Saturday to invite Larson and Steele to a 60-minute debate to be broadcast live from the MPT studio at 8 p.m. Thursday.

The moderator would be Jeff Salkin, host of the MPT interview show Direct Connection, and three journalists would be selected to ask questions.

The invitation was extended two days after the gubernatorial candidates met in Baltimore, and one day after Townsend's campaign issued a challenge to Ehrlich to set up a debate between their running mates. Steele and Larson have previously appeared together in question-and-answer forums.

"We accepted so quickly because we think it will be another opportunity to highlight our ticket's command of the issues, knowledge of state government and passion and commitment to Maryland," said Townsend spokes- woman Kate Philips.

Shareese N. DeLeaver, an Ehrlich campaign spokeswoman, said yesterday that she was not aware of any invitation from Shuman or MPT. Shuman said he left messages for another campaign spokesman, Paul E. Schurick, who was out of town during the weekend.

But it seems unlikely the GOP campaign would turn down the opportunity, in part because Ehrlich has spent months calling for as many debates as possible before the Nov. 5 election.

"We're perfectly agreeable, because we'd like to see a lieutenant governor's debate and we'd also like to see future debates between Lieutenant Governor Townsend and Congressman Ehrlich," DeLeaver said. "We thought future debate discussions would include a layout of all future debates rather than just another isolated debate."

Townsend has said she would like to see fewer debates than Ehrlich wants, and her campaign spokeswoman said yesterday that Townsend hopes for at least one more televised gubernatorial matchup.

But the two campaigns have not reopened negotiations since the conclusion of Thursday night's debate at Morgan State University.

A debate between the running mates could play a significant role because the race appears from recent polls to be close.

"In the circumstances of such a tight race, people are casting about for any additional information that can be provided, even if it's between these nominees for an office that's not especially important," said James G. Gimpel, a government professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"We haven't seen one before, so it's hard to know, but maybe a debate between the lieutenant governor candidates could help some people make up their mind," Gimpel said.

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