Ehrlich, O'Malley debate negotiations still slow going
Brown seeks square-off with Kane
The two rivals running for governor say they're eager to debate, but the campaigns of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. continue to squabble over which format best suits their candidate's strengths.
With less than six weeks until the general election, the lack of progress is testing the patience of media outlets and advocacy groups who are trying to broker a compromise between the two sides.
"Yes, I have spoken to both camps and there is not a lot of agreement on the finer points of the debate," Michelle Butt, news director at WBAL-TV, said in an e-mail. "However, both camps agree a statewide debate, which we are offering with our partner [Maryland Public Television] is in the best interest of the voter, and with that as a backdrop, we are hopeful to get this ironed out."
Her optimism stems, in part, from the similarly difficult negotiations four years ago between the O'Malley and Ehrlich teams. The conflict was settled several days before a studio debate was taped.
"It was not easy, but we did it, so we're hopeful again this time," Butt said in a telephone interview.
The main sticking point in negotiations is how to structure the debates.
O'Malley prefers a more standard, timed debate, while Ehrlich (R) wants a more free-flowing discussion without time limits.
"We want a real debate, not rehearsed sound bytes," said Greg Massoni, a senior adviser to Ehrlich who is taking part in debate negotiations.
But Rick Abbruzzese, an O'Malley campaign spokesman who is also a participant in debate negotiations, said a more controlled format that allows for rebuttals would give viewers a better understanding of each candidate's positions.
"We think that's the most appropriate way to cover the most ground and allow both candidates to be heard on important issues facing our state, so it doesn't devolve into a free-for-all or a talk-radio session," he said.
A meeting at WJZ-TV in Baltimore on Wednesday yielded no final agreement, but one participant believes the sides are getting closer.
"You've got two strong personalities, and you've got a team of very professional media experts who are doing their best to protect their candidates," said Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, which is partnering with WJZ to organize a gubernatorial debate.
"One is governor and one has been governor, and obviously they have different approaches to a debate and because of their past, each of them knows what works better for a given candidate."
The dispute over debates doesn't surprise Josh White, who managed O'Malley's 2006 campaign and recalled the frustrating experience of negotiating details with Ehrlich's aides.
"It was very, very difficult four years ago," said White, who is now a lobbyist at Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver in Annapolis. "We wanted to contact stations and have them work it out. They had all these conditions and after a while it just made your head spin. It got to the point where it seemed like they just didn't want to debate."
Ehrlich and O'Malley ended up taping two debates in 2006, both on the same day.
It's unclear how many debates the two will engage in this year. Massoni said they are still awaiting a response from O'Malley's camp to an Aug. 12 letter outlining five debates three on radio and two on television.
The O'Malley campaign last week issued a statement saying it has accepted "a number of debate invitations and proposed formats." Specifically, Abbruzzese said they have agreed to an Oct. 29 debate on WTOP-103.5 FM, as well as one hosted by WTTG-TV in Washington, D.C., and another put on by The Washington Post in collaboration with WRC-TV and WAMU-88.5 FM at the University of Maryland.
And late Thursday, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown sent a letter to Ehrlich's running mate, Mary D. Kane, asking her to take part in a debate in mid-October hosted by the Bowie State University Student Government Association. The letter also suggested a debate at Montgomery College and a joint appearance on "NewsTalk" with Bruce DePuyt on TBD.