For weeks, Democrats have been arguing for more than one televised debate in the current campaign for governor of Maryland.
But maybe they should have argued for fewer.
They had their one debate on Sept. 24, and incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vs. Democratic challenger Ben Jealous looked like a veteran pro vs. a well-intended rookie.
Hogan seemed as composed as a man with a 22-point lead in the polls (which he is), and Jealous seemed like a boxer who knows he’s behind on points and has to go for the late-round knock-out.
He didn’t get it.
Jealous brought up Willie Horton and “Republican tricks” – an allusion to old racial tactics employed in presidential politics. But it’s tough to make race an overwhelming issue when Hogan’s running mate, Boyd Rutherford, is African-American.
Hogan claimed credit for the state’s strong economics. Jealous countered, “That’s like taking credit for the sun rising.”
It was a nice line – but Hogan had raw statistics to back him up, telling Jealous, “Nothing you said is even remotely true. It’s like you’re living in a dream world.”
That’s a moment for any challenger to jump in with compelling data, with passion, with some kind of argument to jar uncertain voters from their complacency.
Jealous did not.
In a state with 2-to-1 registered Democrats, Hogan is bidding to become the first Republican since 1954 to win a second gubernatorial term. He won four years ago against an opponent, former Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who ran one of the dreariest campaigns in history, and he’s built his commanding poll numbers this time around with two clear advantages: he’s raised about $9 million more than Jealous.
And he’s kept his distance from President Donald Trump.
“There’s not a lot I have in common with the president,” Hogan said, when the two candidates were asked what they might say if given a chance to confront Trump.
Jealous contended, “I wouldn’t aid and abet him the way our governor has,” though Hogan has pointedly not embraced Trump in any public way.
Monday’s debate could be seen on Maryland Public Television. This gave Jealous some of the exposure he’s needed, since he can’t afford nearly the number of TV ads Hogan’s been running. But it also exposed him as someone less certain on statistical data, and less textured on state issues, than the governor.
Jealous couldn’t even win the battle of personal anecdote, forever employed by politicians looking to show they understand issues in a personal way, and that they aren’t heartless bureaucrats cut off from the problems of ordinary citizens.
Is there a drug problem in Maryland, reflective of the national epidemic? Yes, of course, there is. Jealous said he had a cousin in rehab for heroin addiction.
Could Hogan possibly understand such pain? Yes, of course he could. He interrupted Jealous to say he had a cousin who died of an overdose.
For those who missed the debate, Election Day is just over a month away.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, is now in paperback.