Second Opinion: Opportunity missed for Ehrlich

Voters will make up their own minds about whether Gov. Martin O'Malley or former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. won their first debate, which took place this morning and will be broadcast this evening on WJZ-TV and MPT. But it can't be seen as a complete success for Mr. Ehrlich. Governor O'Malley set the terms for the debate from the start by framing his actions over the last four years as tough decisions made in difficult times that were designed to move Maryland forward. That narrative got scant challenge from Mr. Ehrlich as he professed a desire not to "relitigate the past" -- all the while doing just that. Mr. O'Malley was able to pitch his answers to swing voters, and Mr. Ehrlich wound up spending too much of his time talking either to his base of conservatives or to Mr. O'Malley's base of minorities and liberals. It's a good thing that the campaigns have agreed to more debates because this one didn't truly match up Mr. Ehrlich's strongest arguments with Mr. O'Malley's.

If we judge the debate on tactics, Mr. O'Malley got the better of this one. He talked early and often about the topics he wanted to: funding for education, the college tuition freeze he instituted, the budget cuts he's' made, the taxes and fees that went up under Mr. Ehrlich's administration. It was not until the very close of the debate that Mr. Ehrlich laid into the incumbent over the tax increases Mr. O'Malley pushed through the legislature, and even at that, Mr. O'Malley was able to asset, without a challenge, that income tax changes more than offset a higher sales tax for 40 percent of the state. Mr. O'Malley was able to repeat that he had stood up to utilities on ratepayers behalf without Mr. Ehrlich mentioning even once the incumbent's failed promise to roll back the 72 percent BGE rate increase.

A question about gun control serves as a clear example of how Mr. O'Malley took better advantage of the opportunity. A viewer of WJZ wrote to ask whether the candidates would consider loosening gun control laws that make it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to get concealed carry permits than it is in other states.

Mr. Ehrlich spoke at length about his longstanding support for Second Amendment rights -- an issue that likely resonates more with his base voters than with swing voters. Mr. O'Malley spoke briefly about his belief that appropriate gun control measures are necessary to keep firearms out of the hands of drug dealers and then pivoted into a discussion of efforts his administration has made to reduce crime -- including the reduction of a backlog of unprocessed DNA samples inherited from Mr. Ehrlich's administration. (Neither one of them, incidentally, directly addressed the concealed carry issue.)

Mr. Ehrlich then launched into a criticism of the zero-tolerance policing policy Mr. O'Malley favored while Baltimore mayor, saying Mr. O'Malley threw thousands of African-Americans into jail for no particular reason only to have them released again. Not only is that an issue that failed to gain any traction for Mr. Ehrlich when he raised it four years ago but it's one that's not particularly relevant to voters in the rest of the state who are now judging Mr. O'Malley's performance as governor.

The clearest contrast between the two on a future-focused question was in the opening moments of the debate when the candidates were asked about job creation. Mr. Ehrlich blamed Mr. O'Malley for creating an environment that was hostile to business through the actions of regulators at the Departments of the Environment and Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Mr. O'Malley framed job creation as a workforce development issue, saying Maryland has the potential to be a strong international competitor in health care, biotechnology and other advanced fields and pointed to his spending decisions on K-12 and higher education.

But again, Mr. Ehrlich missed a chance to connect on the issue by pointing to specific examples of how regulators have made it tough for businesses. In interviews, he has pointed to an unemployment system that is heavily biased in favor of protecting workers, even bad ones, and to environmental regulators who give confusing, conflicting guidance about compliance with regulations. He's said he's had conversations with CEOs who tell him their decision on whether to come to Maryland depends entirely on whether he is elected governor. But he didn't mention any of that.

The debate format -- a loose conversation in which moderator Denise Koch introduced topics and the two candidates were able to engage in some back and forth -- was the one Mr. Ehrlich likes. It's similar to the talk radio format he's accustomed to, both from his weekly radio show and from years of appearances on the air as governor, congressman and state delegate. But this debate showed that a free-flowing conversation with talk radio callers and one with a thoroughly-prepped sitting governor of the state are very different things. Mr. O'Malley came in prepared -- his campaign passed out fact sheets to reporters in advance, anticipating dozens of issues that might come up -- and he hit all the points he wanted to. Mr. Ehrlich got caught on some tangents and wasn't consistently focused on pitching his message to swing voters. There's a better case to be made for his candidacy, and he needs to recalibrate his approach to make sure he provides it in their next debate.

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