Whether they welcome it or not, abortion is a defining difference between the two candidates for the state Senate in Carroll County's 5th Legislative District.
And underlying that discussion are differing opinions on how much religion should influence political decisions. Last night, these differences were aired during a debate in Westminster.
Larry Haines, a pro-life Republican, said his position on abortion is part of the "mainstream conservatism" that a majority of county voters prefer in candidates, including George Bush in 1988. But Haines preferred to talk about spending -- how his opponent, J. Jeffrey Griffith, would spend more of the taxpayers' money than he would.
Griffith, a pro-choice Democrat, sought to portray Haines as a "religious extremist."
He said that he would serve in office "with no religious ideology to control me," making a pointed reference to Haines's evangelical Protestantism. "No dictator, no ideologue, no religious leader can tell us what to think," Griffith said.
Haines, who is a deacon in the Church of the Open Door in Westminster, dismissed Griffith's attack as "religious prejudice."
The race is seen by abortion rights and anti-abortion groups as pivotal to whether the next Maryland Senate will have enough pro-choice adherents to block a filibuster of abortion rights legislation.
Griffith, who was raised a Catholic, said his fundamental belief in individual conscience determined his own view on abortion. "That's the most important thing in this election," he said, "the primacy of conscience."
Haines proclaimed his opposition to abortion last night, except in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the mother's life. But he preferred to take the debate elsewhere.
Haines, who owns a real estate business, said he was for the taxpayer and tried to cast Griffith as a liberal and big spender on social programs.
Griffith, who is completing his second term as a county commissioner, neither accepted nor rejected the labels, but offered himself as the experienced officeholder, who knew how to work the political system. The race is not about liberal versus conservative, he said, apparently acknowledging the county's conservative voting traditions, "it's about preservation and problem-solving."
While differing in some details about how to preserve the environment, get tough on crime and make child day care more accessible, the candidates shared a similar concern about several issues, except when Griffith steered the discussion back to abortion.
He asked if Haines agreed to the full platform of Maryland Right to Life, which has endorsed Haines. Citing aspects of that platform, Griffith asked if Haines wanted to oppose the morning-after pill, which is sometimes given to rape victims, and if he was against certain forms of contraception.
Haines said he couldn't agree with all of the Maryland Right to Life platform, but he declined to spell out where those disagreements might arise.
Griffith accused him of equivocating.
Afterward, Haines said Maryland Right to Life never asked him about the issues Griffith broached, adding that he had no problem with contraception. "I've been married 30 years," Haines said, "and contraception has been very successful for me."