Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, left, and Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler, right. (AP/The Washington Post)

When the three Democrats vying to be the next governor of Maryland meet on the campus of the University of Maryland at College Park on Wednesday night for their first debate, each will take the stage with a different mission.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who is leading in the polls, has every incentive to play it safe during the hour-long encounter, which is being moderated by “Meet the Press” host David Gregory and broadcast statewide.

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler will get his best chance yet to take Brown down a few pegs and present himself as a more accomplished alternative.

And Del. Heather R. Mizeur (Montgomery) will have an opportunity to introduce herself to many voters with less than seven weeks remaining until the primary. Unlike her two better-funded opponents, Mizeur has not started airing television ads.

The Democrat who prevails at the polls June 24 will start the general election campaign with a big leg up over the Republican nominee in the race to succeed Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), given the more than 2-to-1 advantage in party registration that Democrats enjoy in Maryland.

Maryland Del. Heather R. Mizeur chats with people attending the OFA We Need to Act Now Climate Change Town Hall at the Silver Spring Civic Center in Silver Spring on Aug. 1, 2013. (Marvin Joseph/Washington Post)

Here’s a closer look at what’s at stake for each of the contenders.

Douglas Gansler

For months, Gansler has been trying to convince voters that Brown is ill-equipped to lead the state, based largely on Brown’s oversight of Maryland’s flawed online health insurance exchange.

The debate gives Gansler a chance to make his case directly to viewers. But Gansler has to do it in a way that doesn’t seem too mean-spirited, and at the same time he must convey that he’s got the right stuff himself to be governor.

“He really does have to land the triple lindy,” said Tom Russell, a veteran Democratic strategist who ran O’Malley’s 2010 campaign. “He’s got the hardest job in this.”

The debate also presents an opportunity for Gansler to showcase some of the many policy proposals he has floated during the campaign — among them a 30-point jobs plan and ideas on making government more “transparent;” easing the re-entry of prisoners into society; and turning chicken manure into an alternative energy source. Aides say he will also seek to emphasize his record as attorney general.

To the extent allowed by a debate in which candidate responses are limited to one minute, Gansler, a former Montgomery County prosecutor, could benefit from appearing well versed in a wide range of subjects. At the same time, he must avoid some of the verbal missteps that have hindered his campaign. Last month, for example, Gansler seemed to suggest that Brown’s military service was not a “real job.”

Above all, Gansler could benefit from making a more coherent argument for why he should be governor beyond the fact that he’s not Anthony Brown.

Anthony Brown

Debates are sometimes best remembered for their gaffes — think of Texas Gov. Rick Perry forgetting during a GOP presidential debate one of the federal departments he wanted to eliminate. Even when viewership is modest, such moments can go viral.

Avoiding such lapses is probably the single most important thing for Brown to do in order to retain his front-runner status.

“His main goal has got to be not to make any colossal mistakes,” said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Brown should expect to get pummeled on the health exchange and would do well to have a prepackaged response at the ready. Coming across as knowledgable, competent and calm will be key for the Harvard-educated lawyer, analysts say.

With recent polls showing Brown leading Gansler and Mizeur, he doesn’t need a debate that produces major headlines. Brown, who would be Maryland’s first African American governor if elected, merely needs to hold his own against two opponents far more eager to score points.

Heather Mizeur

For Mizeur, the debate presents an opportunity to show she can go toe to toe with two statewide officeholders.

Despite a campaign that launched in July, many voters still know little about the two-term delegate, who would be Maryland’s first female governor and the first who is openly gay.

Most of the public attention that Mizeur has gotten is related to boutique liberal issues, such as legalizing marijuana. On Wednesday, she has a chance to flesh out a vision for viewers of where she wants to take the state on more mainstream matters.

Mizeur's best scenario is probably a bitter fight between Brown and Gansler that leaves her looking like the only adult on stage.

Want to watch?

The hour-long debate is being broadcast starting at 7 p.m. in the Washington market by WRC (Channel 4) and in Western Maryland by WHAG (Channel 26). It is also being broadcast statewide by Maryland Public Television.