In their first debate of the election year Monday, Gov. Martin O'Malley and rival Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. each insisted he has a better plan for jobs, education and spending taxpayer dollars wisely as Maryland emerges from a national recession.
Neither O'Malley, the Democratic incumbent, nor Ehrlich, a Republican seeking to reclaim the position he lost four years ago, made a major blunder. But the televised debate was tense at times, in part because of a free-flowing format that allowed the two to respond to each other directly while the moderator sat silently for long stretches.
Ehrlich repeatedly referred to O'Malley as "gov," and O'Malley several times called Ehrlich "Bob"; both nicknames had an icy edge by the end of the hour.
O'Malley stuck closely to his campaign talking points, while Ehrlich — whom observers said had more to gain from a strong debate showing because he trails in the most recent polls — pulled material from a wider pool of topics. Ehrlich criticized O'Malley's television ads, discussed his own support of gun rights and took credit for the military base realignment that will move personnel and jobs to Maryland.
O'Malley questioned Ehrlich's commitment to schools, an issue that Maryland voters routinely say is a top priority. "In the toughest of times, I have protected education," the governor said. "I've made college more affordable. In easier times, the former governor always looked for ways to get out of funding education. He cut school construction and he forced 40 percent increase in college education."
The former governor said "hostile" regulating agencies have strangled Maryland's private sector. "We have not created one net new job in this state over the past four years. … We've doubled our unemployment rate," Ehrlich said.
O'Malley shot back with a federal labor statistic that "the truth of the matter is we have actually created 33,000 net new jobs." The figure refers to job growth January through August, though, overall, there are far fewer jobs than when O'Malley took office.
One of the testiest exchanges came over the state's DNA database. Ehrlich expanded the use of the database through legislation in 2005, but O'Malley said he has done a better job of collecting and entering the samples.
"The fact of the matter is this DNA backlog went completely unanalyzed. I mean you didn't even bother to analyze the samples so how could local law enforcement —" O'Malley said, before Ehrlich cut him off.
"The samples hadn't even been taken," Ehrlich snapped.
"Bob, come on man. It was there and everyone knows it, Bob," O'Malley spat.
The conversation heated up again over federal spending in Maryland.
Ehrlich accused O'Malley of relying too heavily on one-time federal grants to pay for recurring costs. " Washington is going to change big time in the next few weeks," he said. "Trust me, those dollars have stopped."
O'Malley cut in: "Trust you? Trust you?"
The debate was recorded Monday morning at WJZ-TV, and was moderated by veteran anchor Denise Koch. It was broadcast in the evening on that station, Maryland Public Television and several radio stations and websites.
Maryland voters won't have to wait long for another one: The candidates will appear together at a live forum in Washington at noon Thursday, an hour-long debate hosted by The Washington Post, National Public Radio station WAMU and WUSA-TV.
Many of the arguments Monday could have been made four years ago, the first time the two candidates faced each other.
In his opening remarks, Ehrlich accused O'Malley of trying to "litigate the past" in recent television commercials. He went on to revisit O'Malley's education and arrest policies as Baltimore mayor, a position he held from 1999 to 2007.
And when Koch asked O'Malley whether he'd pledge not to raise any taxes or fees — something Ehrlich has promised — the governor instead recounted the various taxes and fees that Ehrlich raised beginning in 2003.
The debate hit a speed bump before it started, as Ehrlich's team complained that the audience was unexpectedly dotted with top Maryland Democrats, including Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Rep. Elijah Cummings and many others.
"There was a lot of discussion," Ehrlich spokesman Andy Barth said. "We really didn't feel it was right."
The Baltimore Jewish Council, which sponsored the debate, could invite 50 members, and each candidate was permitted 10 members, said Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.
The council invited elected officials from parts of the Baltimore region where the organization is most active, Abramson said. "Like it or not," Abramson said, the officials the council tends to work with represent Jewish areas and happen to be Democrats.
After a 20-minute delay, the candidates took their seats in front of the cameras.
Later in the day, Ehrlich denied that he had been disturbed by the presence of Democratic politicians. "If I had a problem with that, I wouldn't run in this state," he said.
Ehrlich, who has slipped behind O'Malley in recent weeks after a summer of polls showing the race in a dead heat, tried to use the format to his advantage, striking a more conversational demeanor.
O'Malley talked primarily to the camera, repeatedly accusing Ehrlich of cutting spending to schools and higher education during better economic times — charges the former governor did not refute.
The candidates' tempers flared as they discussed education, specifically in Baltimore. Ehrlich called a 2006 battle over whether the state should step in to oversee 11 failing Baltimore schools "disgusting" and said it was "one of the worst episodes I've seen of protecting a monopoly."
As governor, Ehrlich negotiated a funding package that included state oversight, but it was rejected by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.
O'Malley accused his opponent of speaking in "very coded language about kids that aren't succeeding." The governor added, "I'm tired of people putting down the achievements of poor children and children of color."
Ehrlich lambasted his opponent's "demagoguery" on the college tuition freeze, and pointed out that room, board and other fees had increased in the past four years. That poses a struggle for "working class folks like I come from," Ehrlich said.
O'Malley pointed out that the fees had risen under Ehrlich and chastised his predecessor for endorsing a tuition freeze only as the 2006 gubernatorial contest drew near. Ehrlich did not sign the freeze legislation but let it become law.
The two differed sharply on the use of employee furloughs to help balance the state's budget. Ehrlich said furloughs, which are unpaid days off, "demoralize" workers while O'Malley countered that they were preferable to mass layoffs.
The Republican candidate chided his opponent for being overly reliant on federal stimulus funding to balance the state's budget.
O'Malley countered, "You never turned down a single dollar from the federal government when you were governor."
After the debate, O'Malley said it was a "lovely exchange of ideas."
"I believe the people of our state understand what's at stake here," he said. "In much easier times, the former governor made the wrong decisions. In the toughest of times we made the right decisions to move the state forward."
Ehrlich declined to talk to reporters afterward, saying he would take "no questions right now," but adding he was "happy, very happy" about the performance.
After a second appearance Monday with O'Malley at the Maryland Disabilities Forum in Linthicum Heights, Ehrlich praised the WJZ setup.
"What you saw this morning was a terrific format," he said. "People get to see what you're about, what your views are on the issues."
O'Malley's campaign staff sent a flurry of "fact checking" e-mails as the Monday debate unfolded, in addition to two news release declaring the governor "won" before Ehrlich's camp made the same claim.
Ehrlich later said he considered the debate a victory, in terms of "engaging the issues and substantively addressing some of the ads," but added, "Of course I'm sure Martin would say the same thing."
Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Scharper contributed to this article.