Having an experienced TV moderator went a long way Wednesday night in making Maryland's first debate among the Democratic candidates for governor a lively and occasionally illuminating hour of television.
David Gregory is getting hammered these days by the critics and in the ratings for his work on NBC's "Meet the Press," but he showed more than enough political savvy and TV smarts to keep the Maryland debate on point most of the night.
He quickly sharpened the focus and heightened conflict among two of the candidates by using his first question to ask who should be blamed for the disastrous rollout of the Maryland health care exchange.
He could not have teed up Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown any better for Attorney General Douglas Gansler.
Gansler didn't draw any blood with his answer, but the question put the conflict and acrimony between the two on the table for all to see – and that made for good television by the standards of such debates.
I was surprised by how poorly spoken Gansler is on live television. He started stumbling so badly in his closing remarks that I had to replay the tape twice to figure out what he was trying to say about families.
Gansler is C-minus at best in terms of performance and D on persona.
He has the sleek, well-fed look of upper-middle-class suburban privilege. And, yes, that's exactly the guy many of us saw in those deadly daddy-does-nothing-to-stop-teen-beach-house-bacchanalia pictures last year.
Saying, "I was an economics major at Yale," is not the way to downplay the advantages you have enjoyed and continue to enjoy while so many struggle.
But the bigger surprise to me in my first somewhat extended look at Brown in the spotlight is what an unappealing TV persona he has.
Brown reminded me of an assistant coach with a big attitude and empty platitudes instead of answers. I loved seeing him on the defensive right off the bat when Gregory asked him if he was "ultimately accountable" for the health exchange debacle that is costing the state tens of millions of extra dollars in re-dos.
"Just like the President had troubles, so, too, did we," he said clutching at President Obama's coattails just as he has been hanging on Gov. Martin O'Malley's for eight years.
But then Brown went on to suggest he deserved our votes for the way he responded to the trouble by "re-organizing leadership" of the health care exchange.
Exhibit A of his great effort at reorganization: "The executive director left," he said.
She just left? That's all you have to say on that?
Would that be the hand-picked executive director who was vacationing in the Caribbean and allegedly couldn't be reached by your office while the exchange crashed and burned right out of the box?
That's the language of no-accountability that they love in Washington and Annapolis – and it seems to be all Brown knows. No wonder he doesn't want to come to Baltimore and do a TV debate on WBFF.
On second thought, he's not like any assistant coach, he's like the one in charge of recruiting. He's the one who comes into your living room and promises you your kid is going to be All-Big-Ten, and then pulls his scholarship when the kid gets injured.
And, by the way, someone needs to tell Brown that if he wants to seem even a little bit sincere or trustworthy, he needs to look into the camera every so often when he speaks, instead of off to his right as he did all night.
Delegate Heather Mizeur scored some nice points in the early going when she called out her two male opponents for what she termed "personal bickering."
I liked her composure and stature onstage, but she needs to generate far more energy and passion.
People talk about TV as a "cool" medium, but that's not true when it comes to political TV. Especially in these troubled times, voters want to see some passion. And for all the things Mizeur did right onstage Wednesday night, she came up way short on that.
One last thought on Gregory and the WRC-TV production. Again the producers and host did a lot of things right, but there is no excuse for consistently messing up the most basic function involved in staging and moderating a debate: Keeping track of whose turn it is to speak and how much time they have.
Gregory and the producer repeatedly got that wrong Wednesday night, and there is no excuse for that kind of ragged, third-rate work.