At one point during last night's mayoral debate, the broadcast went to a split screen and reduced a stage full of candidates to just two: Sheila Dixon and Keiffer Mitchell Jr., squeezing out poor Bob Kaufman, who in reality was standing between them, and rendering invisible the four other candidates.
But with this being perhaps the only televised mayoral debate before the Sept. 11 primary, time is fast running out for anyone who wants to alter the reality of a Dixon-Mitchell smackdown.
Still, only Frank Conaway had the grace to bow out last night, during the "lightning round" of opening questions for each of the eight original Democratic candidates.
Before we say goodbye to Conaway, at least for this race, let's just say thanks for the levity: Even as he was waiting for moderator Jeff Salkin to ask whatever question he was going to ask, and knowing that whatever it was, his answer was going to be that he was withdrawing, Conaway put on a little sideshow. He raised an eyebrow, widened both eyes and let the viewer think, "Oh my God, this guy is going to say something crazy." Instead, he merely said thanks, but I'm outta here - oh, and I'm throwing my support to that dude.
Mostly, it was a crisp hour of pointed questions and more mixing it up than you usually get with such a crowded field - broadcast live on Maryland Public Television and on WBAL-TV.
Dixon and Mitchell fell into their assumed roles of incumbent and challenger - or interim mayor and the next mayor, as Mitchell would have it.
Dixon went with her now-familiar approach of trying to seem above the fray, letting others nip at her heels while she focuses on running the city rather than a campaign. When PTA President Phillip A. Brown Jr. - yeah, I had to look him up, too - denounced her "failed" leadership, and WBAL reporter Jayne Miller asked her if she wanted to respond, Dixon airily said no, accompanied by a big, what-me-worry smile.
Interesting strategy, and not an entirely successful one, I think. Mitchell challenged her on ethics - what he repeatedly called the "pay to play culture" in which city contracts go to friends and donors - and Miller asked Dixon to respond. First she rambled around a bit, talking about her gun task force and how great the city is despite its "challenges," then she got around to answering Miller. Or rather, not answering her.
"I'm not going to get into that," she said. "This debate is not where to discuss that."
It's not? Says who?
As Dixon was refusing to debate, Mitchell seemed to fully embrace his attack dog role. Continuing to challenge Dixon's ethics, he referred to a story in Saturday's paper by Sun reporter John Fritze, which noted how the housing department created a new division that was supposed to speed up the process of dealing with the vast numbers of vacant, abandoned houses that have blighted so many neighborhoods - but instead seems only to have provided employment for Dixon friends and associates like Jacquelyn Cornish, named to head the division, and Edward Anthony, promoted to a position in the division.
Mitchell also made much of his plan of "radical reform" of the school system, ending the city-state partnership and giving the mayor full responsibility for the schools. While that surely would bring clear, focused accountability for the schools, there's one problem: How would the city manage to keep the huge amount of state funds flowing into city schools without giving the state some say so in how they're used?
While Dixon and Mitchell were playing their respective roles, it was left to the lower-tier candidate to call them out. Mike "I love William Donald" Schaefer got in a good dig at Dixon, calling her "Queen for the Day"; Andrey Bundley tried often to speak directly to voters; and Kaufman got in a plug for that kidney he needs.
But it was Del. Jill P. Carter who made the best use of her outsider status, accusing not just Dixon but also Mitchell of paying "lip service" to the failures of the city-state schools partnership as if both - who have been in office all along - had nothing to do with those failures.
"They," Carter charged, "have been part of the problem."
Find Jean Marbella's column archive at baltimoresun.com/marbella