The debate debate [Editorial]

The campaign to decide who will be Maryland's next governor — a lackluster effort that's so far only boosted the number of undecided voters — took another turn into the banal this week with a debate among the Democrats about debates. Two months ago, it appeared that candidates Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Attorney General Douglas Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur had agreed to three televised debates, and now it seems to be whittled down to two on TV along with one on a 250-watt AM station in Baltimore.

Here's a brief synopsis. On Wednesday, the Brown campaign announced that an agreement had been struck for three debates — May 7 on the NBC affiliate in Washington, June 2 on Maryland Public Television and a third on a date to be determined on WOLB-AM (presumably later this month) that would be hosted by former state Sen. Larry Young. The Mizeur and Gansler campaigns quickly shot back that Mr. Brown was ducking the third televised debate they'd previously agreed to and that the voters deserved better.

We'd certainly agree that voters deserve better, but more on that in a moment. Let's not delude ourselves into thinking there's anything but political self-interest in action here. Polls show Mr. Brown is the front-runner and, with little more than seven weeks left before the June 24 primary, the more debates the better for those trying to overtake him. The Brown campaign, on the other hand, would clearly like that not to happen.

Perhaps, as Mr. Brown's campaign manager insists, the three candidates never specified how the debates would be broadcast when they agreed to three in February. That may be true — although on March 4 this newspaper reported the agreement as covering televised debates, and the Brown campaign never asked for a correction — but it's hard to see how limiting the debate does anyone much good at this point, including the lieutenant governor.

That all three candidates felt an obligation to involve Mr. Young is one of the curiosities of Democratic politics in this state. For someone who was expelled from the General Assembly in 1998 under an ethical cloud and later tried (and acquitted) for bribery, he's carved out a remarkable second life as host of a daily radio program with a relatively small audience in Baltimore but a much longer political reach. Whether or not the current gyrations lead to a third televised debate, you can bet that nobody will be sending their regrets to Mr. Young.

This much is obvious. The voters of this state have either paid minimal attention to the race or don't especially like what they've heard so far. Polls may show Mr. Brown with a significant lead, but they also suggest that a candidate named "undecided" could beat all three. A lot of Republican voters are sitting on the fence as well.

Do debates, televised or not, help voters make up their minds? Yes, they probably do. For many, it's the one chance to see the candidates in action having to defend their records and views — or pressing their opponents to do the same. Certainly, it's far more revealing than a slickly-produced 30-second campaign ad.

Mr. Gansler and Delegate Mizeur might be inclined to beat up on Mr. Brown in a debate format, but appearing to duck a televised debate may do Mr. Brown just as much harm. In general, the lieutenant governor seems to have approached the race cautiously, as if recognizing that it's his to lose. That may be a winning strategy, but it's hardly inspiring to those voters who like a candidate who fearlessly takes on challenges of any kind.

But let's also keep some perspective. Even the most closely-contested gubernatorial primaries in Maryland have rarely resulted in a large number of televised debates. In comparable circumstances in 1994, there was just one before the Democratic primary — a decision that worked out for a candidate named Parris N. Glendening. Nor is the debate the only yardstick by which voters can take the measure of a candidate for governor.

Still, it would be better if debates in future gubernatorial elections were arranged by a neutral third party in the way that the League of Women voters used to arrange presidential debates before the Commission on Presidential Debates took over. That might ensure fairness and high standards and prevent such "misunderstandings" among candidates jockeying for political advantage from happening again.

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