Representative Roy P. Dyson, D-Md.-1st, and GOP challenger Wayne T. Gilchrest clashed last night in a testy televised debate, with the congressman tagging his opponent as a gun-control advocate who favors cuts in Social Security and Mr. Gilchrest raising questions about the congressman's ethics and his ties to defense contractors.
In the first debate between the two candidates, the issue of Mr. Dyson's conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War also was raised by Mr. Gilchrest, a decorated veteran of the conflict.
The two candidates often interrupted each other during the half-hour debate broadcast last night on Maryland Public Television, which produced dramatic moments and snide remarks from both sides of this tight congressional race.
At one point, Mr. Gilchrest challenged the congressman on his recently revealed Vietnam War draft status, after Mr. Dyson failed to say why he opposed the war. Instead, the congressman talked about the support he has received from the Veterans of Foreign Wars Political Action Committee.
Interrupting the congressman, Mr. Gilchrest demanded: "Did you know that I fought so you'd have freedom to be a C.O.? Did you thank me for that?"
"Thank you, Wayne," Mr. Dyson replied calmly.
Mr. Dyson then went on the offensive after the Republican opponent said that PACs "have poisoned the political process," adding that "No one should be allowed to . . . give money unless they can vote for you."
The five-term congressman produced a letter sent by the Gilchrest campaign in September to 200 PACs asking for donations. Mr. Dyson said the letter was sent to him from a PAC in Detroit.
"Detroit as far as I know is not in Kent County or Wicomico County," Mr. Dyson said evenly. "Wayne, you can't have it both ways."
"To get in the ballpark you have to pay the ticket," Mr. Gilchrest quickly replied. "As soon as I'm in there you'll see change."
"Are you trying to get into Memorial Stadium?" asked Mr. Dyson.
"No, I'm trying to get into the U.S. Capitol," Mr. Gilchrest shot back.
According to the latest campaign finance reports, the Dyson campaign collected about half of its $79,500 in October from PACs, mostly labor groups, while the Gilchrest camp picked up less than half of its $44,000 from PACs.
In a previous disclosure covering part of August and September, the congressman picked up $99,500 from PACs and $33,240 from individuals, while Mr. Gilchrest collected $24,291 from individual contributors and no PAC money.
The two candidates also sparred over Social Security and Medicare, with Mr. Dyson charging that his GOP opponent favored cuts in both areas.
The congressman said he voted against the recent budget agreements because of the reductions in Medicare. Holding up letters from 1st District senior citizens who opposed such action, he said he did not want to "balance the budget on their backs."
Mr. Gilchrest said he favored a "small" rise in Medicare premiums. "Everybody in the nation has to bear the burden . . . to balance the budget," he said. "The incumbents are the ones who have gotten us into this problem in the first place."
But Mr. Gilchrest denied ever calling for cuts in Social Security benefits.
"If Roy was one of my students in my classroom, I would probably have failed him on this test, because everything he said just now is wrong," said the Kent County high school teacher. "I want to make one thing emphatic and clear as I can: no cuts in Social Security."
The GOP challenger then charged that Mr. Dyson favored "across-the-board freezes" that would also have hit all government-supported pensions.
Throughout the debate Mr. Dyson, 41, portrayed himself as a lawmaker who helped bring jobs and defense contracts to the district while also working on projects that include cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay and beach replenishment in Ocean City.
The congressman sought to paint Mr. Gilchrest as inexperienced and to the left of the district's political sentiments, noting that his challenger favors gun control and curbs on development of non-tidal wetlands.
Mr. Gilchrest, who has said he could support controls on assault weapons and a waiting period for handguns, said he would "ensure that the people have a right to own guns." On the non-tidal wetlands issue, Mr. Gilchrest -- who has unveiled a plan for development curbs -- said "we need a plan to manage growth."
The 44-year-old Mr. Gilchrest described himself as a "schoolteacher [and] father" who decided to run for the congressional seat in 1988. "I decided I didn't like what was going on in the decision-making process in Washington," he said.
"Democracy is a system that only works when individuals come forward and get involved in the process," said the Republican, who lost a 1988 challenge to Mr. Dyson by less than 1,500 votes.