O'Malley and Ehrlich spar in tense debate

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley (D) and Republican challenger Robert Ehrlich square off in a televised debate.
By John Wagner and Aaron C. Davis Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 6:23 AM

Gov. Martin O'Malley and former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. traded accusations about each other's records and campaign tactics in an often-testy televised debate Monday but shared few specific plans for the future.

With both vying for a second term, O'Malley (D) and Ehrlich (R) argued over tax increases initiated by their opponent, which of them has been more committed to the education of poor children and the accuracy of their negative campaign ads.

Not once during the hour-long encounter in the studio of Baltimore's WJZ TV, however, did Ehrlich mention his most costly campaign promise: rolling back a 2007 increase in the state sales tax. And O'Malley largely stuck to generalities about what he would do with another four years if reelected.

From the outset, O'Malley sought to frame the debate as one about "whether we move forward to better days or whether we slip back," promising to build on what he acknowledged has been a challenging time to govern because of the recession.

Ehrlich, who is trying to avenge his 2006 loss to O'Malley, closed the debate by arguing "we can do better." Ehrlich cited higher unemployment and tax increases during the past four years and accused O'Malley of engaging in "class warfare."

The policy differences the candidates aired were largely about the past. O'Malley, for example, touted a four-year freeze in public university tuition that Ehrlich said went on too long, hurting the quality of higher education. Left unsaid was that both candidates have voiced support for modest tuition increases in coming years.

Their first debate, coming three weeks before the Nov. 2 election, appeared unlikely to fundamentally alter the course of what some observers have dubbed a "grudge match" between two of Maryland's best-known political figures. Recent polls have shown O'Malley with the lead.

Shortly after the debate, Ehrlich and O'Malley agreed to a second televised debate THAT WAS hosted Thursday by The Washington Post and two media partners, WUSA (Channel 9) and WAMU (88.5 FM). Two radio debates are scheduled for next week.

During Monday's event, sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council, Ehrlich accused O'Malley of telling "half stories" and chastised his successor for interrupting. O'Malley said Ehrlich was making "phony promises" and living in a "fantasy world."

The contrasting styles of the candidates were evident from the beginning. Ehrlich took a more common-man approach, repeatedly referring to O'Malley as "gov."

"This is not a personality contest, folks," Ehrlich said. "We're just two guys who want to lead."

O'Malley was more polished and disciplined, using his opening statement to tick off a list of accomplishments, including job gains this year, more affordable university tuition and high marks for Maryland schools.

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