Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney

Robert McCartney: Ehrlich improves performance in 2nd debate

Behind in the polls in the Maryland governor’s contest, Republican challenger Bob Ehrlich made a spirited attempt in Thursday’s debate to shake up the dynamics of the race by presenting himself as the candidate who’d be more candid with voters than Democratic incumbent Martin O’Malley about tough budget choices ahead.

Ehrlich scored some points, especially with a frank proposal of painful steps to fix the enormous deficit facing the state employees’ pension system. But the Republican didn’t land a knockout punch, and left himself open to criticism by failing to explain how he’d pay for his signature proposal to reduce the state sales tax.

Ehrlich, who preceded O’Malley as governor, repeatedly described himself as the candidate who talked straight to voters rather than in platitudes.

To overcome the multibillion-dollar pension deficit, the Republican said new employees should no longer be promised a defined benefit in the future. He also said some of the burden of paying for existing obligations should be shifted to local jurisdictions — which are certain to resist strenuously.

Ehrlich also recommended saving money in building the Purple Line connecting Montgomery and Prince George’s counties by using express buses rather than light rail.

“Ultimately the narrative of this campaign is going to be serious times, serious people, serious debate, serious issues, new administration in Annapolis,” Ehrlich told reporters after a lively, hour-long exchange sponsored by Washington Post Live.

But there was a gaping weakness in Ehrlich’s argument, and O’Malley zeroed in on it. While preaching budget rigor on some issues, the Republican didn’t lay out specifics about how to cover the cost of lowering the state’s sales tax from 6 to 5 percent. “He has no idea how we’d make up the $700 million” loss of revenue, O’Malley said.

Ehrlich performed better than in the first televised debate in Baltimore on Monday. He was more substantive from the start, emphasizing economic issues and the need to ease burdens on small business. He repeatedly needled O’Malley with accusations that the Democrat was speaking in generalities and cliches.

O’Malley maintained his poise, though, and was smooth and disciplined as usual — critics would say scripted and artificial. He made his case that he’s minimized the damage to Maryland during a very tough economic period and positioned the state with investments in education to take advantage of the new information economy.

O’Malley had been more masterful in the Baltimore debate, and the question going into Thursday’s forum was whether Ehrlich would come up short again. In my view, that would have been a strong sign that the Republican didn’t have a chance of gaining traction before the Nov. 2 election. I still think Ehrlich will have a hard time catching up, but with today’s performance he’s at least given himself a shot.