- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2002

Politicians and political observers say Kathleen Kennedy Townsend probably won't be the most polished public speaker on stage at tonight's televised debate with Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in Baltimore.
But she doesn't have to be to come out ahead.
The lieutenant governor, with her history of verbal gaffes and an uneven stage presence, benefits from only having to exceed the low expectations for her performance. She also has the home-court advantage: Debating at a black university where students and the surrounding community typically lean Democratic.
"If she duels him to a draw, then she probably wins," said James Gimpel, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland at College Park.
Mr. Ehrlich, meanwhile, faces high expectations. But he has to win with humility avoiding the appearance of bullying Mrs. Townsend, according to the political gurus.
The debate, sponsored by the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, will be held at 8 p.m. in the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Comcast cable television will air the 1-hour debate live on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington metropolitan area and on CN8 in the Baltimore area.
NAACP officials anticipate about 2,000 spectators, including a large contingent of Morgan State students, will fill the auditorium.
The NAACP was still finalizing the debate's format yesterday. Since the NAACP announced the debate last week, the start time changed from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., and the number of panelists posing question to the candidates went from six to five.
"There's still a lot of details to be worked out, to be perfectly honest," Ehrlich campaign spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver said. "There's obviously been a lot of confusion surrounding the debate."
Neil Duke, a Baltimore NAACP official who helped organize the event, said yesterday that the as-yet-unnamed panelists would be reporters or editors from the Baltimore Afro-American, Baltimore Times, Baltimore Sun, Associated Press and a free-lance broadcast journalist from Baltimore.
Mr. Duke will serve as moderator.
By late yesterday, most agreed that the format will include two rounds, with each candidate having two minutes to respond to questions and the opponent having one minute to rebut.
Casper R. Taylor Jr., speaker of the House of Delegates, said the apparently standard debate format would not favor either candidate. Regardless of the format, he said, Mrs. Townsend had to demonstrate that she was an effective communicator.
The spokesman for the Democratic coordinated campaign, David Paulson, predicted a rigid answer-and-rebut format would work against Mr. Ehrlich's "very smooth" conversational style.
Thomas V. Mike Miller, president of the state Senate, said the debate could play out like a rerun of the presidential debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore, where the low expectations for Mr. Bush helped him score victories, while Mr. Gore often came across as overconfident.
"When [Mr. Bush] did reasonably well, people concluded that he won the debate. In this case, it is the Democrat who is extremely bright but, became of various perceptions, people are interested to see how she performs against a rather glib Republican," said the Prince George's County Democrat.
Mr. Ehrlich's "great stage presence" has made him the debate favorite over Mrs. Townsend, who does not always come across well in public appearances, Mr. Miller said.
"I know them both well," he said. "There are people who gravitate to the spotlight and the television cameras kind of melt toward them. She's not that kind of person."
Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat who counts both candidates as friends but endorsed Mrs. Townsend, said the lieutenant governor does better in the spotlight than most people think.
"She's not that bad off. If she has a clear victory, it's a plus for her. If she holds her own, it is even for both candidates," said the longtime Maryland politician who served as governor and Baltimore mayor.
"I never particularly cared for debates myself," Mr. Schaefer said. "Sometimes you can make a mistake and it's not really a mistake, but people misinterpret what you said."
The crowd may restrain Mr. Ehrlich's performance.
"It's obviously a partisan Democratic crowd. That's a disadvantage for Ehrlich," said Mr. Gimpel, the university professor.
State Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus agreed. "It is not going to be an easy crowd for him," the Eastern Shore Republican said.
Mr. Ehrlich, a lawyer with 15 years of campaign experience, also risks making Mrs. Townsend a victim if he beats her too badly. Mr. Ehrlich's status as the favorite to win puts the burden on him to "win with grace," Mr. Gimpel said.
Mrs. Townsend may have the most to lose in the debate since she has slipped in the polls. She had a 13-point lead over Mr. Ehrlich in March, but Mr. Ehrlich was tied or slightly ahead in polls last week.
No other debate dates have been set.

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