Despite high hopes, no debate slated in Md. Senate race between Mikulski and Wargotz

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2010; 11:09 PM

There is one thing on which Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and her reelection opponent, Queen Anne's County Commissioner Eric Wargotz (R), agree: They won't be convening for any full-fledged debates in the 11 days remaining before Election Day.

On Thursday, the Wargotz campaign blasted out a release hitting Mikulski for her "refusal to debate."

"I don't know if it's because her record is indefensible or because she just doesn't care anymore, but either way, Mikulski's unwillingness to engage intellectually with Maryland citizens is troubling," Wargotz said in the release, adding that "several media outlets . . . have expressed interest in hosting debates."

Not so, says Simone Ward, Mikulski's campaign manager. "We were never contacted by a media outlet or by the [Wargotz] campaign until Monday of this week," Ward said Thursday.

She said the one outlet both campaigns discussed the issue with was Maryland Public Television - the only statewide television station. MPT offered two options: separate interviews with the two candidates, to be aired back-to-back, or a joint interview with both candidates appearing together. Mikulski's campaign accepted the second option, and she and Wargotz are scheduled to appear on Monday night's edition of "Direct Connection" on MPT.

Ward said neither MPT nor any other media outlet or interest group ever offered to sponsor a full-fledged debate between the two candidates, with a stage and an audience and the other trappings of such events.

"There have been no debate requests in the general election that have come to us," Ward said.

Wargotz spokesman Demetrios Karoutsos acknowledged that it was difficult to drum up interest in such an event - some media outlets he contacted about hosting a debate never called him back.

But MPT was more receptive, he said, and was "willing to do anything in any format [the two campaigns] can agree on," not just the joint interview.

So which campaign's version of the negotiations is correct?

"Somewhere in the middle is the way it went down," said Mark Keefer, a producer at MPT.

First of all, Keefer said, "there were several different conversations with multiple people," so "who knows what exactly was conveyed."

As for Karoutsos's contention that MPT was "willing to do anything in any format," Keefer said, "I don't believe that to be true." On the idea of a full-dress debate, Keefer said, "I'm certain there was never any mention of an audience."

Whatever the reason, the two candidates won't be appearing together other than on Monday's program. The lack of interest from potential debate sponsors could be because debates are expensive to produce and the race is viewed as uncompetitive; the lone Washington Post poll of the contest showed Mikulski leading by 35 points.

Because of their need for visibility and free television exposure, underdog challengers are typically eager for debates and often accuse veteran incumbents of seeking to avoid them. Following that playbook, Karoutsos said his camp believes Mikulski never wanted such a session to happen.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company