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With debates, remembering a smile while going for jugular

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland Democrats have gleefully urged voters to watch rebroadcasts of Saturday's gubernatorial debates, saying Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. transformed into "angry Bob" before the cameras as he gesticulated his way through two clashes with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Republicans haven't been so aggressive in promoting the debates, which were broadcast last night and Saturday but are available online and will be aired again on cable. But they say they're confident that the Republican governor came out the victor -- and that O'Malley wasn't so anger-free himself.

Analyzing the facial expressions, paper shuffling, vocal tone and posture of the two major candidates for governor has turned into a political Rorschach test, with partisans on both sides claiming with equal fervor that their candidate came off as statesmanlike and his opponent as angry, bitter and defensive.

"It was like Ali-Frazier. It was like the Thrilla in Manila," said Zach Messitte, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College. "There was good animosity between them in the sense that you could tell there was tension and drama."

According to WBAL-TV and Maryland Public Television, which aired one of the debates live Saturday night, about 120,000 households watched statewide. When WBAL rebroadcast that debate at 11:55 p.m. Sunday, another 50,000 households tuned in.

Ratings aren't yet available for the other debate, which was taped Saturday and broadcast last night on WJZ-TV and MPT.

The Maryland Democratic Party tried to make sure the ratings were high. It sent e-mails yesterday urging as many people as possible to watch O'Malley's "victorious performances."

The Saturday night debate is available at, and last night's debate can be seen at

"As nervous hands shuffled across a debate desk covered with scraps of paper, an angry and petulant Bob Ehrlich couldn't hide his frustration," the Democratic Party said in an e-mail.

But anger, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder. Richard Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University who is a longtime friend of the governor's, saw a "bitter" and "nasty" O'Malley.

"I thought that Martin O'Malley has a real anger problem," Vatz said. "He always sounds like he's about to explode."

In the debate broadcast last night -- which actually took place first -- Ehrlich often propped his chin on his fist and scowled while O'Malley spoke. But O'Malley tended to scrunch his forehead into a stern expression when he talked about his opponent.

In the debate that was broadcast Saturday, Ehrlich began by frowning while he was introduced, and he often gestured broadly with crooked fingers or clenched fists. O'Malley appeared generally calmer in the second debate, but he did try several times to interject comments while Ehrlich was speaking, leading the governor to complain, "That's my time, mayor."

Despite the Democrats' claims of victory, Ehrlich said yesterday that he was extremely pleased with how he performed. As he sees it, he was able to display for voters exactly the contrast he wanted to.

"A whiner versus a leader," Ehrlich said.

(You can guess which, in his opinion, is which.)

O'Malley said yesterday that people who watch the debate will come away with an idea of a "clear contrast."

"One who sees the whole world as us versus them and one who believes we're all in this together and we have a responsibility to advance the common good."

(Bonus points if you can tell which one he thinks is which.)

Both Vatz and Messitte said the debates showed both candidates in command of issues and able to articulate their positions on various topics. But they did so in very different ways.

Ehrlich had not prepared a single word of his opening or closing statements, he said.

"That's the only way I know how to present myself," Ehrlich said. "I just speak from the gut. That's the way it is."

O'Malley, by contrast, delivered polished opening and closing statements. Rather than using jargon, he tended to do what Ehrlich calls "channeling Kennedy," wrapping his ideas in lofty rhetoric instead of the nitty-gritty of policy.

The mayor said his approach to the debate is the same as his approach to governing.

"I believe that government should work, which is why I take a tremendous interest in it and work very hard to understand the things that are working and the things that aren't working. Bob Ehrlich doesn't believe that government works, so that's why he walked into the debate the way he did," O'Malley said.

Rusty McCrady, the coach of the Walter Johnson High School debate team, which has won the Montgomery County championship 11 of the past 14 years, said neither style was inherently better. Both candidates showed they knew how to present themselves and display their charisma on television, he said.

If he had been coaching them, McCrady said, he would have advised them to start by establishing a positive image for themselves and then attack.

"Go for the jugular," he said. "Find the one flaw you know you can exploit and expose it. I would make sure at the end of the debate, people know why someone would like you and make sure they leave with one strong reason to dislike your opponent."

And how did they do?

"I think they did a really good job of attacking," he said. "I don't know if they did as well on the positive side."

Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

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