For the first time in their sharply contested rematch, the two men seeking another turn in the governor's mansion will share a stage Monday for a debate that both camps hope will sway the dwindling pool of undecided voters.
The contest between Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. remains in flux — although O'Malley has opened a lead in the most recent surveys. With three weeks before the election, that puts the onus on Ehrlich to change the momentum, according to observers.
"Ehrlich needs this debate, and he needs to perform well," said Todd Eberly, the acting director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College. "He's not been able to go toe-to-toe with O'Malley's message machine."
A relatively small proportion of Marylanders say they haven't made up their minds, and Ehrlich is the one voters passed over when the two faced each other in 2006, noted University of Maryland communications professor Trevor Parry-Giles.
That means Ehrlich "is trying to get people to take a fresh look at an old guy," Parry-Giles said. "We already know him; that is a hard sell."
Douglas Gomery, a resident scholar at the Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland, agreed that the event looms larger for the Republican challenger, given polls and the state's historical Democratic leanings.
"For Ehrlich, it's very, very important because they both get to stand there, side by side," Gomery said. "Ehrlich now will look equal to O'Malley on TV."
Ehrlich and O'Malley exhibit little personal warmth toward each other, and have assiduously avoided contact on the campaign trail, sometimes missing an encounter by minutes through carefully choreographed entrances and exits.
But both said they look forward to focusing on issues during the hourlong debate, which will be broadcast at 7 p.m. on WJZ (Channel 13) and on a station in the D.C. market. The debate, sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council, is so far the only scheduled televised forum where both will meet, though the campaigns have agreed to two radio debates and are in negotiations over another televised forum.
Monday's format is one that Ehrlich prefers: It will include each candidate giving a brief statement on a topic followed by segments of free-flowing conversation guided by moderator Denise Koch, a longtime WJZ anchor. Each candidate will give 90-second opening remarks, and who goes first will be determined by a coin toss moments before the 10 a.m. taping. Representatives of the Green, Constitution and Libertarian parties were not invited, sparking a protest from those candidates.
O'Malley said last week that he expects a "lively exchange" of ideas. "There's big differences in this race between choices we have made in the toughest of times and choices that our predecessors Ehrlich and Steele made in easier times," he said, referring to former Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who has become a lightning rod as head of the Republican National Committee.
Ehrlich said his goal was to "communicate my views in a coherent way." He said the free-flowing format will allow him more time to counter what he predicted would be "outrageous" comments lodged against him.
Both candidates will try to prevent the kind of gaffe that ends up getting played over and over in news clips.
"I always think of debate like Olympic figure skating," said Jennifer Duffy, of the Cook Political Report. "You look to see if someone makes the big jump or if someone falls down.
"Debates that don't have fireworks one way or another tend not to make much difference and, frankly, mostly candidates tend to play it on the safe side."
One such moment occurred recently in California's gubernatorial debate, when former Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, jabbed his opponent, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, on her decision to fire nine-year employee Diaz Santillan because she learned of the worker's immigration status.
In Arizona, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer paused for 10 seconds while delivering opening remarks in a debate last month against challenger Terry Goddard, a stumble that drew national attention and led the incumbent to shun future debates.
But Duffy said most other debates this season have been comparatively tame.
Parry-Giles, the communications professor, predicted that the candidates would not deviate much from the themes of their paid advertising, including education, state spending, electricity rates and taxes. "I don't think they'll inject a new issue into the race," he said.
Towson University rhetoric professor Richard Vatz, an Ehrlich ally, said the former governor needs to focus on taxes and the state's unemployment rate. "He should not be talking about polls; he should not be talking about O'Malley campaign ads," Vatz said.
O'Malley, meanwhile, must talk to his base and get them excited about the contest. "This is the key to his winning," Vatz said. "If he gets the turnout that he wants, he is going to win the election."
Democrats agree. Josh White, O'Malley's 2006 campaign manager, said the governor must "keep the enthusiasm" of his supporters.
The debate might not be the best opportunity to maintain such enthusiasm.
Audiences for these forums tend to be fairly light and skew older, said Gomery. "They watch more TV than any other group," he said, "and they grew up with the format of the televised debate."
He expects most voters to get their information about the debate from news coverage. "The real game is which highlights will appear on the news," Gomery said. "If there's a 'gotcha' moment, that will be on the highlight reel. So in the end, no one wants to risk a goof."
The last time O'Malley and Ehrlich debated, for the 2006 election, Eberly says the consensus was that O'Malley won, although not decisively. Then Baltimore mayor, he made the mistake of saying that he had reduced homicides to below 200. Rather, the rate dropped below 300. That time there were only two debates, both taped the same day.
Ehrlich, though, frowned and seemed tense. The performance prompted gleeful Democrats to e-mail links to the debate to supporters.
But O'Malley does not always appear polished on television. "Sometimes he comes across as too wooden, too academic," Eberly said. "The way he delivers a speech can be painful. This is not an election season where people want to be talked at."
In 2002, when Ehrlich defeated Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, there was a single televised debate at Morgan State University that focused on African-American issues. The news article out of that forum was the crowd: loud supporters whose enthusiasm overshadowed the substance.
Townsend's performance has become a classroom example for Parry-Giles, who shows it to his communications courses as a lesson on what not to do. "She was stumbling, inarticulate and unable to put forth her position," he said.
O'Malley and Ehrlich have plenty of experience at debating, but their skills might be of limited value to voters this year. Even some hard-core political followers are showing little interest in watching the match-up.
At last week's rally where President Barack Obama stumped for O'Malley, Carlos Taylor, a Harford County attorney, laughed dismissively at the prospect of watching the debate.
"It should be a snore," he said. "They are talking through each other."
Watching the debate
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Where: WJZ, MPT and WUSA's digital sub channel
For coverage and analysis during the 10 a.m. taping and after, go to baltimoresun.com
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