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Md. Debate Nasty Through and Through

One day after the first head-to-head meeting of the Maryland gubernatorial candidates, analysts agree Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend surpassed expectations while Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Ehrlich lived up to his.

But they can't agree on who really won Thursday's debate at Morgan State University in Baltimore, sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Reactions from the crowd were mixed, with fans from both camps declaring victory.

"I think people are going to wake up tomorrow and realize the governor's race has begun," said Maryland Republican Party Executive Chairman Paul Ellington. Ellington, of course, declared Ehrlich the winner.

"Kathleen showed she can be articulate, forceful and in command of the issues," said Maryland Democratic Party Communications Director David Paulson. "She surprised Bob Ehrlich and he showed it."

Paulson, predictably, claimed victory for Townsend. 

Some observers felt Townsend was surprisingly passionate and articulate.

Townsend exceeded everyone's expectations, said Allan Lichtman, a political analyst and a history professor at American University who has consulted for a number of Democratic Party campaigns.

"I think the giant sucking sound you heard was the entire Democratic leadership letting out a huge sigh of relief," he said.

But not enough Maryland voters may have seen the debate on television due to heavy network programming competition, said Carol Arscott of Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications.

"I doubt (the debate) will change any minds," Arscott said.

The debate atmosphere was electric in the Carl Murphy Fine Arts Center. The majority of the crowd backed Townsend, and they made no effort to conceal it. She was greeted with loud cheers, while Ehrlich was met with a chorus of boos so loud at times they drowned out his supporters.

"Bob stood strong on the issues despite the atmosphere," said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver. "We were given a hand and we dealt with it."

During opening statements, Ehrlich was unable to begin because of the booing. Townsend jumped in to ask her supporters to stop, but took that moment to add more to her opening statement.

NAACP Chairman Kweisi Mfume then came out of the crowd and requested that the audience show respect to all candidates, and penalized Townsend for her interruption by awarding Ehrlich an extra minute.

The behavior of Townsend's followers was inappropriate, Ellington said. 

"We chose to be civil," said Ellington, who added he believed some of the panel's questions were slanted to favor Townsend.

Lichtman said there was probably an intentional slant in some of the questions.

"I think everyone needs to act like a first-class citizen, and not everyone did," said Amanda Boyd, 23, an Ehrlich supporter.

Ehrlich may have won some sympathy standing in the face of a hostile crowd, Lichtman said, but he was put on the defensive and in the long run, the atmosphere may have hurt him.

Arscott agreed, saying, "(Townsend) took a very strong stance and she had the backing of the crowd."

Later in the debate, Townsend stumbled on her words when discussing gun control, drawing laughs from Ehrlich supporters. Ehrlich silenced them with a wave of his hand.

Discussion between the candidates was heated, with each taking their share of shots at the other.

Race issues came up repeatedly, which stimulated the crowd even more. Ehrlich repeatedly said he is comfortable working outside his "comfort zone" and going to places unfamiliar to the Republican Party.

"This is not Star Trek," Townsend responded. "African-Americans are not aliens."

Townsend made repeated references to Ehrlich's "conservative" congressional voting record.

"You've never been elected to anything at anytime on your own," Ehrlich said in response to Townsend's criticism of his voting record.

"Every time Congressman Ehrlich came with a personal attack, Kathleen responded with a focused argument," said Townsend Press Secretary Len Foxwell. "She exposed his right-wing voting record for what it was."

However, Townsend's statements, DeLeaver said, sounded "contrived and planned."

"I think voters are thinking maybe Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is getting
her act together," Lichtman said. "Maybe this is a turning point."

- Capital News Service contributed to this report.