In an atmosphere as bizarre as the one now enveloping American politics, the obligatory candidate debate may have lost even more of its fading importance.
But this week’s face-off between Gov. Martin O’Malley and former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. might be an exception.
This confrontation, it would seem, moved O’Malley toward the win column and may have hastened the end of Ehrlich’s public career.
In a sense, O’Malley was reintroducing himself. He came across as a cool, seasoned and well-prepared leader.
But he sought to do more than project himself and his candidacy. He talked about the importance of education in the effort to give Maryland a role in the new, global economy.
As he spoke about his stewardship of financial matters in the deeply trying times, it was possible to see him as a uniquely successful candidate in a very difficult political year. If the nation has not abandoned all faith in government, O’Malley might well emerge from this election as someone who stood successfully against unreason.
He has to win a second term first, of course. And responses to his performance included many biting screeds of opposition. Against that backdrop — well-appreciated by his campaign — he must surely have welcomed the opportunity to make his case.
A battle of images
He arrived in Annapolis four years ago as the mayor of Baltimore — and as the leader of an Irish rock group — an image that may have fallen somewhat short of full maturity. But there he was Monday evening seeming quite gubernatorial.
Ehrlich’s nervously querulous tone made O’Malley seem even more measured. O’Malley is no John F. Kennedy. In fact, some say he’s a bit too cool, almost detached one on one.
But Ehrlich did a fair approximation of Richard Nixon, who never seemed to find his public comfort level. In fairness to both Ehrlich and Nixon as candidates, they are not endowed with the sunny mien that TV seems to favor. Both come off as a bit dark, shrouded by heavy brow and dark hair.
Image may not be everything, but if people are comfortable with you, they listen more carefully.
Ehrlich made the disadvantage worse by seeming to scowl through much of the hour-long session. O’Malley seemed a master of his message, eager to connect with the viewer.
O’Malley also seemed to have prepared more thoroughly. His opponent in pre-debate sessions was Timothy F. Maloney, a former member of the House of Delegates, lawyer and jack of all political trades.
O’Malley was the more focused presenter of his views. And he was sharper with the thrust and parry, of which there were a few.
Performance under pressure
Candidate debates have lost some of their edge because skittish candidates negotiate formats that reduce risk and the opportunity to gauge performance under pressure. Perhaps it was an attempt to be folksy or conversational, but Ehrlich’s decision to refer repeatedly to O’Malley as “guv” seemed patronizing.
Ehrlich insisted he had no interest in “re-litigating” old issues, but he spent precious time doing precisely that. For example, he accused O’Malley of locking up too many Baltimoreans when he was mayor.
“That’s your record,” Ehrlich said. “Live with it.”
“There are a lot more people living as a result of it,” O’Malley responded.
Ehrlich’s campaign asserts that Maryland needs the kind of new direction he would bring to the table. But other than calling the O’Malley administration “hostile” to business (and offering little proof), Ehrlich presented no new ideas.
Unless he simply has no new ideas, how could he fail to enunciate them at such a critical moment?
When pointing out that Maryland has lost jobs in recent years, Ehrlich seemed to suggest that the global recession could be laid at O’Malley’s door. Does anyone buy that?
At the end of the debate, there was a brief disagreement about which of the two should get the last word. Ehrlich insisted it was his turn.
The debate closer may have some marginal advantage, but by this point in the proceedings O’Malley was too far ahead on points.
C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is [email protected]