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C. Fraser Smith: Did we learn much? It’s debatable

Now what?

So we’ve had a debate. Eagerly anticipated, we were told. An opportunity for the candidates to … to what?

Go after each other? Get in the other guy’s face? Clean his or her clock?

Show the voters who they really are? And maybe even what they plan to do if elected?

What they promise, in other words. (Whatever happed to campaign promises? Can you really have a campaign without promises? Nobody promises any more. Pity. Only thing worse than a broken promise is no promise at all.)

A debate among the Democratic candidates for governor of Maryland is really important. Too important to be undecided on. (One of the candidates will be governor. You didn’t hear it here first: It’s Maryland, home of the Blue. We elect Republicans once a generation.)

So, the debate was important, if unsatisfying.

We’re still in danger of electing Anthony or Doug or (less so) Heather Who.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Attorney General Doug Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur met Wednesday to debate. We knew the scheduling of a debate did not mean there would be one.

There hardly ever is anything like a debate in American political campaigns. Candidates do shortened versions of their talking — or attacking — points. If the exchanges deviate from the scripts, the encounters are called “testy” or “sharp” or “unusually combative.” “Sparks” are often spotted or heard. Atmospherics get the ink or the air time.

They are saying too little about their plans, their hopes and dreams, their biggest challenges and their commitment to everyday Marylanders.

One is left with the famous question posed for the late Edward M. Kennedy: Why do you want to be governor? (President, in his case, of course.)

If the candidates were could free themselves of bickering, we might get to see if there is any real public service fire, any passion, any new ideas, any thought about how to get a consensus on old, good ideas. The likelihood of insight or more complete profile of the wannabes might have been stifled in the pre-debate forums — convened to give the candidates a sense of what it’s like to be attacked or challenged.

Delegate Mizeur, the designated also-ran, came close to violating the rules. She deplored bickering, another favorite descriptor. She urged a focus on jobs, a far more nourishing menu item than most of what we heard.

This is not to say that the leading candidates were wrong to remember each other’s perceived weaknesses. This is not negative campaigning — unless there is nothing else. This material is illuminating and important for the voters.

If Brown mishandled the health care rollout, we should know that and make our own judgment on how directly it illustrates his managerial acumen or lack thereof.

If Gansler overlooked the teenage drinking he has otherwise deplored — on TV after all — we are obliged to think about what that admitted lapse says about his judgment.

If Mizeur is too inexperienced to handle a $40 billion budget, we get to decide that, too.

We need more answers to these and other questions. Many of us do not pay much attention to political campaigns until the very last minute. Candidates will be accused of boring the insiders. But they must take the risk.

So, as I was saying, now what?

The polls will almost certainly show a narrowing of Brown’s campaign-long lead.

People will stop being undecided. Not because Brown performed poorly in the debates (if he did), but because the frontrunner can and often does slide back toward the pack as the election gets closer.

If there is a noticeable slide, you may see more of him.

There will be another televised confrontation. If the sparks and the bitterness and the rest of the static have subsided, maybe we can look for some promises this time.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.