Marylanders had their best chance to examine candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination last night as four of the five verbally punched and counterpunched their way through a 90-minute debate at the University of Maryland at College Park.
With students and professors probing for the essence of the candidates' positions and attitudes, they attacked one another at will -- but saved their sharpest criticisms for President Bush.
Marylanders go to the polls tomorrow for the Republican primary and to select one of last night's Democratic debaters -- former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin -- or Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, who has not campaigned in Maryland and who did not participate last night.
Mr. Tsongas, who has led in polls taken in Maryland, drew most of the fire.
"We do not need the best president that Wall Street ever had. That's what Mr. Tsongas said he wants to be," said Mr. Clinton, who has been second in the Maryland polls.
The 90-minute exchange -- one of three in as many states for these candidates in 24 hours -- provided the only opportunity for voters in Maryland's primary to see the candidates together.
Questioners from the university's School of Public Affairs asked the candidates to offer their views on issues as diverse as the war in Iraq and the ravages of television on young minds.
The debate was held in the Tawes Theater on the College Park campus and carried live by Maryland Public Television.
In the beginning, three members of the panel indulged in some of the usual front-runner bashing, attacking Mr. Tsongas for "trickle-down" economic policies more friendly to Wall Street than Main Street. As he had in the earlier debate in Denver, Mr. Tsongas appealed for unity among the candidates -- and was essentially hooted down.
One of the more illuminating moments came when each of the candidates was asked to describe an event in his life that defined for him the issue of civil rights.
Mr. Brown said he had learned "the reality" of deprivation and need during the riots that swept the Watts area of Los Angeles in the 1960s.
"I saw the frustration, the rage, the suppressed fury," he said.
Mr. Tsongas said he recognized the reality of division between the races while he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia. A black teacher from the United States, he said, had a different relationship with the Ethiopians than he did.
"I was their friend. He was their brother," he said. Divisions of that sort, he said, have to be healed.
The current Republican administration, he added, "treats [racial division] so cavalierly."
Mr. Clinton said he had grown up seeing the divisions and deprivations of segregation. The black children he knew were not allowed to attend the school he went to. They lived in communities with unpaved streets and no indoor toilets. His grandfather, he said, taught him this was wrong.
Mr. Harkin said his own sense of injustice was inflamed when he discovered the infamous "tiger cages" of Vietnam, where men and women were tortured. For exposing the U.S. role in maintaining these places, he lost his job on Capital Hill.
The Republicans, Mr. Harkin said, have "taken the party of Abraham Lincoln and turned it into the party of David Duke," a reference to the former Ku Klux Klan member who is running for the Republican presidential nomination in some states.
Offering praise for "touching stories" he had not heard before from his competitors, Mr. Clinton sought to contrast them with the Republicans. Patrick J. Buchanan, the columnist who is challenging Mr. Bush, had gone to a Confederate graveyard but refused to visit a burial ground for blacks on the other side of the street.
"George Bush won't condemn it," Mr. Clinton said. "He wants to play the race card, [and] the Democrats aren't going to let him do it."
Several times, the candidates made clear they knew where they were campaigning.
Mr. Tsongas said that the nation's urban centers can be restored only with the help of the private sector -- and he pointed to the successes of Baltimore.
Mr. Clinton, too, had a Baltimore example, the Nehemiah housing project on West Stricker Street that he toured last week with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
The problem with most of the approaches to urban blight, said Mr. Brown, is that millions and millions of Americans "fall below the safety net." He proposed enterprise zones, tax breaks of up to 10 years for the new businesses and a public service corps.
The key, said Mr. Harkin, targeting Mr. Tsongas again, is get rid of "trickle down."
"We're trusting the big corporations to help, and look what it's done for us," he said. He proposed to use $35 billion from the "peace dividend" -- funds diverted from the defense budget -- to start public works projects.
One of the questioners, observing that the candidates were in favor of greater access to health care, asked who would bear the costs and how the costs would be contained.