Although their race is listed as one of a handful of tossups in the increasingly nasty battle for control of Congress, Helen Delich Bentley and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger were strikingly civil to each other yesterday in a debate in which they agreed about almost everything.
The candidates for Maryland's 2nd Congressional District seat met for the eighth time in the campaign in a debate taped for Maryland Public Television and agreed almost entirely on a wide range of issues, including war on Iraq, the balance of civil liberties and the fight against terrorism, the response to corporate malfeasance, minimum wage increases and the need for more drug treatment programs.
As they have in earlier forums, Ruppersberger, the Democrat, and Bentley, the Republican, spent most of their time pointing out how much they agree with each other.
Ruppersberger got a little rise out of Bentley at the end of the debate, which airs tonight at 7:30, by suggesting that she might be a bit out of the loop after having left elected office in 1994, when she unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for governor.
"I've served in local government for the last 18 years, and I feel that has prepared me," said Ruppersberger, the Baltimore County executive. "I respect my opponent. She's done a good job taking care of the port, but she's been retired from elected service for eight years, and she hasn't been dealing with the issues I have."
Bentley, a former five-term congresswoman and one-time head of the Federal Maritime Commission, slapped her hand on the desk and shot back, "I was not only in elected office for 10 years, but I ran a federal government agency for six years and have been active in both Annapolis and Washington for the last eight. ... I have been there."
When the tape stopped rolling, Ruppersberger offered a bit of an apology.
"I only meant I'd been dealing with some issues you haven't over the last eight years, that's all," he said.
Their exchange on how to fight the drug war was more typical.
Ruppersberger's answer: "Drugs are one of the worst cancers we have in our society." He advocated more treatment money.
Bentley's answer: "The drug problem has certainly undermined not only the economy in the country but has advanced the crime picture." She suggested more treatment and education to keep young people from using drugs.
Ruppersberger's rebuttal: "I think we both agree we need resources and need to work together."
Bentley's rebuttal: "We agree."
Their starkest area of disagreement was on adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. Both are for it, but each endorses his or her party's plan for how to add the benefit.
On other issues, the distinctions are subtle. Ruppersberger said he would support the president in a war on Iraq, but wants him to pursue a Persian Gulf war-style coalition. Bentley said she would like a coalition but would trust President Bush's judgment if he decided to go it alone.
Richard E. Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University, said he was impressed with the candidates' conduct after he moderated a debate between the two in Cockeysville last month.
"This race is understandably tight because the two candidates were decent to each other. There was no ugliness," he said. "These are, I think, two impressive candidates."
Vatz added, though, that in a race as close as this one - a recent Sun poll called it a dead heat - Bentley and Ruppersberger are wise to approach negative campaigning with caution because it could backfire.
Later yesterday, Bentley held a fund-raiser in Glen Burnie with Vice President Dick Cheney's wife, Lynne Cheney. More than 100 people attended, adding $25,000 to Bentley's coffers.
Cheney praised Bentley for opening doors in Washington for women and for her longtime support of a strong military.
"It is also crucial given the times in which we live to have someone with Helen's understanding of national security in Washington," Cheney said. "In these historic times, we need Helen Bentley in Congress."