The old friends-turned-sparring partners danced around the ring last night, each more intent on showing off his own moves than on landing any major blows on his opponent.
For the few times during the debate that former Rep. Kweisi Mfume attempted a jab at Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin - criticizing a vote on the USA Patriot Act, for example, or his acceptance of donations from corporate interests - Cardin held Mfume closer, describing for viewers their long friendship and their work together as congressional colleagues.
As if to underscore the political similarities between the two front-runners for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate, each reserved his strongest criticism for President Bush.
"They were civil, respectful, reasonable," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "They didn't run against one another. Essentially, they went there, they showed that they were qualified to be U.S. senators, and they walked away."
The hourlong debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Maryland and broadcast live on Maryland Public Television and WBAL-TV, was the one opportunity for viewers to see Mfume and Cardin head-to-head before the primary vote Sept. 12.
Before the forum, analysts said the pressure was on Mfume, who has trailed Cardin in several but not all polls, to distinguish himself from the man with whom he served more than nine years in the Maryland delegation to Congress.
Repeating a theme common in his campaign, Mfume - the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - introduced himself as not an administrator but an advocate: "a voice and a vote for change."
The claim is calculated to contrast Mfume's style with that of Cardin, a 40-year politician seen as working most effectively behind the scenes to shape legislation and forge compromise. Cardin parried that impression by highlighting his vote against the U.S. invasion of Iraq - at a time, he said, when that position was not popular in the 3rd District.
Mfume spoke of the "Potomac fever" that infected longtime lawmakers in Washington. In the closest the candidates came to a heated exchange - it didn't get particularly hot - Mfume chided Cardin for accepting corporate donations.
"The money is the problem," Mfume said, "As long as we continue to have oil companies and pharmaceuticals and gas companies continue to give thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to campaigns, you can bet as sure as I'm sitting here they're going to pull the strings every time there's a progressive piece of legislation that comes before the House or the Senate."
Cardin said he favored campaign finance reform but also said he stood by his record.
"I've stood up to the drug companies, and I've introduced legislation for competitive pricing," he said. "I've stood up to the oil companies and voted against the president's energy policy. I've stood up to the insurance industry. I've stood up for the consumers of this country, and I'm proud of my record."
After the debate, Mfume acknowledged receiving contributions during this campaign from political action committees associated with Anheuser-Busch and Federal Express, but he said he had sent the money back.
Cardin said after the debate that the majority of his fundraising has come from individual donors. His campaign, meanwhile, distributed materials indicating that Mfume had taken more than $582,000 from PACs when he was in Congress from 1987 to 1995.
The Mfume campaign said his pledge not to take corporate donations reflected his belief that it was time to change from the past.
During the debate, Cardin referred to Mfume only to respond to Mfume's few gibes, or - more commonly - to talk about their friendship and collaboration.
Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, said both candidates' strategies were clear.
"Mfume, understanding that perhaps Ben is a bit ahead, tried to show people, well, here's where we differ," he said. "Cardin would not attack Mfume. I could see the discussion between him and his campaign manager, saying the last thing you want to do is to alienate Mfume's constituents."
Norris said the most important thing for the candidates was avoiding a major mistake.
"That's the biggest thing they had to do in this," he said. "If one of them had a made a huge gaffe, everybody would have been on them in a heartbeat."
Walters said each candidate accomplished what he needed.
"They were both really outstanding in terms of their ability to handle issues on their feet," he said. "It showed they had both made a profession of doing this. It just tells me that the people of Maryland would not be embarrassed by either one of these guys, because they're just both first-rate."
Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.