COLLEGE PARK -- More than 500 University of Maryland students turned out for a glimpse of presidential politics yesterday, heard a challenge to "reach beyond self" and found themselves in the middle of a truth-in-political-advertising brawl.
Former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts charged one of his opponents in the upcoming New Hampshire primary with running a "purposely misleading" political advertisement on medical insurance.
Mr. Tsongas said an ad by Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., asserts that Mr. Kerrey is the only Democratic candidate with a health care proposal. Calling that claim false and "offensive to me," Mr. Tsongas called on Mr. Kerrey to withdraw it.
"My health care plan was put together in October and he knows it. . . . He knows I've had a plan out there. To suggest otherwise is not an accident," Mr. Tsongas said.
Mr. Tsongas said he blames media consultants for convincing candidates that such tactics are necessary. Though he opposes capital punishment for most crimes, he said, he might accept for consultants and pollsters.
Mr. Kerrey's campaign in New Hampshire, asked to comment on the Tsongas charges, did not return a phone call yesterday.
Mr. Tsongas was the first presidential candidate to appear at College Park this year. Student organizers have invited the other Democratic and Republican candidates to visit before Maryland's March 3 primary.
The economy and America's sagging competitiveness in world markets dominated Mr. Tsongas' comments during his hour-long visit at Tydings Hall.
Several members of the audience said college students are apprehensive about America's economic future and are open to the ideas of candidates everywhere on the political spectrum.
"With the recession and the problems we're having, it's hitting students that politics matter to them," said Theodore Hallas, 20, the student coordinator for Mr. Tsongas.
"A lot of people here have the idea that if they vote for a Democrat, they're voting to have their money wasted," said Mike Tracton, 19, of Fort Washington, an officer of the campus Young Democrats. Their parents, he said, brought them up to distrust Democrats.
Matya Bock, 20, of Baltimore, said she was struck by the difference between Mr. Tsongas and President Bush on the question of who won the Cold War. Mr. Bush said America won. Mr. Tsongas said Japan, Germany and Taiwan won.
Ruth Zerwitz, 21, whose family lives in Pikesville described the campus as "extremely political," though not cleaving to any particular ideology. "There are very strong views on both sides, Republican and Democratic," she said. A college campus, she said, can offer the best or worst vantage points for the voter who wants to be well-informed.
Mr. Tsongas said his kind of Democrat is "pro-economic growth," and he chided his Democratic colleagues for failing to understand basic economic principles.
"What the Democrats don't understand," he said, "is that you have to grow the economy before you can distribute the wealth."
He was also critical of his party for joining with President Bush to urge an election year tax cut for the middle class.
Addressing the students directly, he told them to dedicate their lives to something more than pursuit of a BMW automobile.
"Life is not a beer commercial," he said. "We're alive. Life has to have purpose. We want to be able to look back and say, not that I did well but that I did good."