Ehrlich, O'Malley Swap Scorn in TV Debates

WJZ-TV anchor Denise Koch, center, moderates a debate between Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R), left, and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D).
WJZ-TV anchor Denise Koch, center, moderates a debate between Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R), left, and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D). (By Chris Gardner -- Associated Press)
By John Wagner and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 15, 2006

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley traded scathing assessments of each other's records yesterday during a pair of debates in which they did little to hide their mutual disdain.

Ehrlich (R) accused his Democratic rival of neglecting Baltimore's low-performing schools, of wrongfully arresting thousands of its citizens and of practicing a "leadership style of whining and blaming others for your failures."

O'Malley argued that there are "two Bob Ehrlichs," one who, during an election year, touts tax cuts, investments in education and a commitment to the environment, and another whose record of governing is starkly different.

"We can do better, but we need a governor who is on the side of working families," O'Malley said during the first of two debates, which was taped yesterday afternoon for broadcast tomorrow night on Maryland Public Television and WJZ (channel 13) in Baltimore.

In an unusual arrangement, the gubernatorial candidates engaged in a second debate that aired live last night on statewide public television and on WBAL (channel 11) -- the candidates described the two as though they were two halves of a sporting contest.

The set of televised debates came amid a bruising contest between two of Maryland's best-known politicians that until yesterday had played out largely through television advertising, much of it negative and in the expansive Baltimore media market. For months now, the governor has succeeded in keeping the campaign focused largely on Baltimore crime and education, two topics he had identified as weaknesses for an opponent who has overseen one of the nation's largest cities for seven years. But it is unclear whether his message is working with statewide voters -- O'Malley has consistently led in independent polls.

Yesterday, those two themes resurfaced for long stretches as the two men sparred. But O'Malley managed to weave a third theme through both debates -- the notion of "two Bob Ehrlichs." That allowed him to address a range of claims Ehrlich has made during the campaign, such as his assertion that he supported state-funded stem cell research or backed large increases for higher education, moves he only made in the final year of his term.

After the debates had concluded, Ehrlich tried to head off the new line of attack, saying that there are two Bob Ehrlichs -- "the 60th governor of Maryland and the 61st."

Both men sought to spotlight their accomplishments, with Ehrlich, Maryland's first GOP governor in a generation, saying that his administration had "taken Annapolis by storm" after having been sent there to stop the "worst instincts" of the Democrat-led legislature.

"I believe by any measure, Maryland is better today than it was four years ago," Ehrlich said, citing higher statewide school test scores, new transportation projects and a thriving economy.

O'Malley cited improvements in test scores in Baltimore, particularly among younger students, as well as reductions in violent crime and homicides -- progress that, he said, Ehrlich has sought to belittle for political gain.

In both debates, the two men sat behind desks stacked with their notes and papers, and exchanged comments in loosely structured hour-long encounters.

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