Again and again, Bill Frank and Bob Ehrlich -- two thirtysomething Republicans running for Congress in Maryland's 2nd District -- gave thoughtful answers to questions about gun control, health care, deficit spending, education and other issues.
Then there was John Michael Fleig, a twentysomething politician also running for Congress in the 2nd. He's a Republican by registration, a "Political hell-raiser" by self-definition.
Throughout Monday night's Republican debate at Vitali's Restaurant in Edgewood, Mr. Fleig was more comedian than candidate. The crowd of roughly 100 people -- and Mr. Fleig himself -- found his act highly amusing.
John Fleig on the assault weapons ban: "I tell you what, if someone's going to break into my house with an assault weapon, I want something just as powerful to knock them back out the window. I don't want to be standing there with a .22."
But seriously, folks . . .
John Fleig on defense: "Our military. The best. It's always been the best. Why? Because Americans want the best . . . Please, leave my military alone."
He's got a million of them.
John Fleig on John Fleig: "I'm part American Indian. Half of my ancestors died at the hands of the government. The other half died protecting the government. . . . If you want to vote for one of your own, brothers and sisters, vote for me."
The Fleig act was so popular with the audience, at least in terms of humor -- intentional or otherwise -- that Bill Frank lamented, "Why do I always have to come after him?"
But around the Fleiggery, Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Frank seriously debated the issues of the day, while taking a few shots at each other.
The audience, composed mostly of Frank and Ehrlich supporters and others running for office or members of Republican political clubs, learned that both candidates would have voted against the crime bill, both are against gun control, both support a balanced budget amendment.
The pair tangled over other issues, such as term limits, which Mr. Frank supports and Mr. Ehrlich doesn't. Mr. Frank said there are too many career politicians in Washington who serve for 30 or more years.
The system favors incumbents and keeps "good, honest" people from serving, Mr. Frank said. He said he supports a 12-year term limit in the House and Senate, with the proviso that a popular legislator could be re-elected after 12 years through a write-in campaign.
By contrast, Mr. Ehrlich said he opposes term limits. "Campaign finance reform is the answer, not taking away choices from the people." At the same time, Mr. Ehrlich said, "I promise I will not serve 12 years."
At another point, Mr. Frank took a shot at Mr. Ehrlich for accepting money from political action committees. Mr. Frank is running hard on the fact that he refuses so-called "special interest" money, while Mr. Ehrlich is accepting PAC donations.
Mr. Ehrlich asked teachers, nurses, doctors and lawyers in the audience to raise their hands.
"Everyone of you is a special interest," he said. "If you think your special interest is illegitimate, then get out of that business."
He said he would seek to represent anyone, if elected. "Don't buy this phony demagoguery about special interests," Mr. Ehrlich said.
Each told the crowd he had the best chance to keep the 2nd District seat under Republican control. Incumbent Helen Delich Bentley is a five-term Republican now running for governor.
As a nonpolitician and non lawyer, Mr. Frank said, he would appeal to those who voted for George Bush and Ross Perot in 1992, while saying of Mr. Ehrlich, "I feel he's a sitting duck in November" because Mr. Ehrlich is a lawyer and two-term state delegate, a career politician, while Mr. Frank would be a citizen legislator.
"I have been a citizen legislator," said Mr. Ehrlich, who said he's continued to practice law while in Annapolis the last eight years. At the same time, Mr. Ehrlich boasted of having raised $180,000 for his campaign, saying, "We take the money serious, because this is a serious race."
"I stand before you tonight and ask for your vote," Mr. Ehrlich said. "I believe that Bob Ehrlich is the candidate who will keep the seat in Republican hands."