By avoiding any major missteps that might have threatened his status as front-runner for the Maryland Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown benefited the most Wednesday evening from the race’s critical first debate.

Brown’s performance was hardly inspiring. He was cautious and occasionally wonky about the issues, and uncharacteristically feisty in baiting his top rival, Attorney General Doug Gansler.

But Brown was sufficiently comfortable discussing the issues that he didn’t lend weight to Gansler’s criticisms that the lieutenant governor is little more than an impressive résumé without substance to back it up.

For Gansler, it must have been disappointing that the evening’s most memorable line, his own, was, “We parent on the fly.”

He was referring, of course, to the controversy over his failure to break up or report a Delaware “Beach Week” party where underage drinking seemed evident while Gansler paid a quick visit to his son.

Democrats vying to become Maryland’s next governor give their closing statements after their debate at U-Md. Wednesday night. (NBC4)

Gansler’s comment was sincere and even a bit humanizing. But he would have much rather used the time to hammer Brown some more over the embarrassing problems in the Maryland health insurance exchange rollout, which Brown oversaw.

The third candidate, Del. Heather Mizeur (Montgomery), helped herself a lot by grabbing an hour of prime-time exposure that her meager campaign funds won’t allow her to buy.

She was poised and conciliatory, repeatedly positioning herself above the bickering between the two men on either side of her.

But polls have put Mizeur consistently in third place, and her policies are probably a bit too far to the left even for deep blue Maryland Democratic primary voters.

It was very much to Brown’s advantage that the debate, televised statewide, mostly dropped the health exchange issue after an initial question about it from moderator David Gregory of NBC News.

Gansler has tried to make it the primary weapon in his assault on what he says is Brown’s record of ineffectiveness.

The two top candidates differ comparatively little on the issues, so it’s imperative for Gansler to make the election a choice about leadership ability.

The attorney general was unsparing, saying Brown was “relatively delusional” in taking credit for what he called an “unmitigated disaster” in enrolling Marylanders under President Obama’s health-care law.

The state had horrific problems with the Web site at the center of the exchange, and has had to scrap and replace the technology.

Brown deflected the attack as he has before. He said that he was one of many state leaders responsible for the problems and that steps had been taken to fix them.

“I sincerely regret that any Marylander was inconvenienced,” he said.

Then the topic pretty much went away, thus removing the controversy where Brown was by far the most vulnerable.

As talk turned to other issues — jobs, schools, marijuana legalization — the differences in policy or emphasis weren’t big enough to sway large numbers of voters.

Gansler reached out to moderate Democrats by criticizing what he called 40 tax increases under the administration of Gov. Martin O’Malley, who’s backing Brown.

The attorney general also urged a reduction in the corporate income tax rate to attract business.

Brown turned the latter position against Gansler, however, by calling it a “corporate tax giveaway.”

The Beach Week controversy was embarrassing for Gansler, given that he had spoken out as attorney general against underage drinking.

Asked whether he missed a parenting opportunity at the party, Gansler said, “Could I have done something different there that night? Absolutely. . . . We parent on the fly. . . . That was the mistake we made that night.”

Brown didn’t lay out a lot of specific plans. On taxes, he said he’d appoint a blue-ribbon commission that would study how to improve the business climate. I expect more than a few voters were perplexed by his legalistic point about changing the evidentiary standard in certain domestic abuse cases.

Still, Brown’s main assignment Wednesday was to avoid falling on his face. He started out with the polls on his side, along with almost all the Democratic establishment.

It’s quite an advantage. Gansler and Mizeur have less than seven weeks to find a way to overcome it.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to