Debate over debate devolves into a standoff

Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley has challenged former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, who begins a quest today to get his old job back, to an hourlong debate this Saturday on Ehrlich's WBAL radio show.

But Ehrlich, a Republican, rejected the terms and offered his own conditions, which the Democratic governor found unacceptable. Ehrlich's campaign requested a "simple one-hour discussion" with the governor, while O'Malley's side wants a "true debate."

Tuesday's debate about the debate unfolded this way: O'Malley made his proposal through his campaign e-mail and his Facebook page. "I think the Maryland public deserves to hear about our plans and ideas as soon as possible," he said in an e-mail from his campaign. He proposed using a WBAL radio news employee and a television partner as moderators.

It's a convenient venue. Ehrlich and his wife, Kendel Ehrlich, host a two-hour radio show Saturday mornings on WBAL.

A few hours later, Ehrlich posted an item on his campaign Web page titled, "Bob Ehrlich welcomes Governor O'Malley to the Bob and Kendel Show." He indicated he didn't want a moderator "to fill air time," saying, "I will personally host Governor O'Malley for a one-on-one conversation about the record tax increases, jobs losses, and budget deficits that have hurt Maryland families and small businesses in recent years."

Ehrlich's modifications were swiftly rejected by the governor's campaign.

"We proposed a very simple and standard debate at a time we knew would work for Mr. Ehrlich," O'Malley campaign manager Tom Russell said in an e-mail. "We regret that he did not take our offer in the spirit it was intended. Our offer stands to have a true debate this weekend at a time that is convenient for Mr. Ehrlich if he is at all interested. I think we've reached the point where Mr. Ehrlich needs to decide if he's simply a talk show host or a serious candidate for Governor."

Democrats have complained for weeks about Ehrlich's work as a radio host, which he plans to continue until he officially files his candidacy in July. They've filed Federal Communications Commission complaints about on-air comments that they say relate to clients at his Baltimore law office.

An Ehrlich aide has said he won't "dignify" the accusations.

Tuesday's proposal from the O'Malley camp might have been a way to keep the issue in the spotlight as Ehrlich launches his campaign. The turn-around would have been quick for two candidates who have difficulty reaching consensus, and it would have come as O'Malley enters the final 48 hours of the legislative session - typically a hectic time for the governor.

But WBAL says it took the potential debate seriously.

Mark Miller, WBAL's general manager, said he and other station employees were "willing to do whatever we could" to make it happen, if Ehrlich agreed. Miller said he'd discussed with producers the logistics of a debate, including the potential moderators and setting.

The flare-up was reminiscent of the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, which ended with O'Malley's defeat of the first-term governor. Throughout the summer, the two sides couldn't agree on debate terms. They finally settled on two television appearances on one day, just weeks before Election Day.

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