In 8th, Morella changes tactic

Van Hollen's record criticized in ads, debate

October 22, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Constance A. Morella, a popular congresswoman who in eight previous campaigns never ran an ad criticizing an opponent by name, has been uncharacteristically hammering away at Democrat Christopher Van Hollen Jr. in a Washington-area media blitz and, yesterday, in a debate.

Morella said during the taped Maryland Public Television debate that Van Hollen, a state senator, voted for a tax cut for the wealthy and flip-flopped on whether to back a proposed intercounty highway. She also called on Van Hollen's campaign manager to resign for comments made yesterday in a Washington Post article.

In the article, campaign manager Steve Jost commented that focus groups showed that men, in particular, were turned off by the prospect of election attacks against Morella. "They reacted like you had said their mother was a slut," Jost was quoted as saying.

Morella seized on the statement, saying, "I must say, Chris, I think you should ask your campaign manager to resign for what he said about women. I think it was an insult to all women."

Van Hollen issued a statement after the debate, saying, "I was surprised and disappointed to read Mr. Jost's quote. As a husband and father, I was very offended by his language. He has apologized and assured me that it will not happen again."

The 8th District seat in suburban Washington is being targeted by both national parties because the race is close and is important in the battle for control of the House.

In the half-hour debate, to be aired Thursday night, Morella repeated criticism -- previously outlined in one of her television spots -- that Van Hollen backed legislation to cut income taxes for Maryland's wealthiest citizens. She also said that he waffled before deciding to tentatively support the Intercounty Connector across the traffic-choked Washington suburbs, a project opposed by many environmental groups.

Van Hollen has said he supports the road if it can be built in an environmentally sensitive way. He said in the debate that he backed the tax relief only after helping amend it to be weighted more toward middle-class families.

After the debate, Van Hollen said Morella is running a negative campaign. "If you look at her ads, she spends all her time talking about me, not about the issues," he said.

But Morella said in an interview, "I haven't gone negative." She said she was merely repeating statements made by others about Van Hollen.

One of her recent ads features a photo of state Del. Mark K. Shriver, whom Van Hollen narrowly defeated in the September primary. The ad notes that Shriver had accused Van Hollen of distorting his record. Shriver, who has since endorsed Van Hollen, said recently he doesn't agree with Morella's use of his image or comments in her ad.

But Morella said of using such ads: "The feeling was that if they said it, let that speak for itself."

The 8th District hasn't been in Democratic hands since 1986. A recent Sun poll showed that Morella is vulnerable this year, partly because many of her traditional Democratic supporters won't vote for her this time because they are focused on electing a Democratic House. Democrats hold a registration advantage of more than 2-1 over Republicans in the 8th.

Nationally, Democrats need a net gain of six seats to assume House leadership.

Morella said during the debate that voters should cast their ballots for an individual -- not a party -- because the House isn't likely to change hands, no matter what happens in Maryland. "I would submit it is far more important to have me there -- a moderate ... who can forge those bipartisan coalitions."

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