The Democrats nipping at Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin's heels in their quest for the party's Senate nomination share a common tactic in the waning days of the primary campaign: Hammer Cardin at every opportunity.
During a one-hour debate broadcast on WTOP radio and Channel 8 TV in Washington yesterday, Cardin was criticized for topics ranging from campaign contributions to his Iraq war votes.
"Congressman Cardin says he is a critic of the Bush administration and says he has opposed Bush administration policies, but the actual record says otherwise," said Allan J. Lichtman, an American University history professor running for Senate.
Josh Rales, a Montgomery County businessman whose Senate bid is largely self-financed, said, "What you're not going to see from Ben that I think you'll see from me is someone who is going to be able to get past the [Washington] tunnel vision. ... I'm not going to be tethered by the existing order."
Put on the defensive for much of the hour, Cardin stood up for his record. He said he is an advocate of working families and has bucked President Bush -- on Iraq, in particular. Cardin said he was proud of his votes against the original Iraq war resolution and for a subsequent funding measure to aid the troops.
The one candidate to hold his fire was former NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume. Several polls have shown Mfume, a former Baltimore congressman, running competitively with Cardin and well ahead of Rales and Lichtman. Cardin and Mfume entered Congress together in 1987, and often say on the campaign trail that they are friends.
"We've got good people running for this office," said Mfume, who participated in most of the forum via phone because of a tie-up on the Capital Beltway.
Lichtman chastised Cardin for taking money from political action committees and said that the donations he has received from pharmaceutical companies influenced his vote on a prescription drug bill. Cardin said that he should be judged on his record, and that he supports campaign finance reform.
"I'm for public financing of campaigns," said Cardin, a 10-term congressman and former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates. "We've got to reform the way we finance campaigns in this country."
All four contenders said they would not have voted to confirm Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court. Cardin said the Democrats should have filibustered.
The candidates' final debate before Tuesday's primary launches a hectic weekend of campaigning -- though Cardin tended to official Capitol Hill business for the better part of yesterday. The two front-runners will appear this morning at a banking forum in Landover.
After the radio forum, Mfume rushed into the Margaret Schweinhaut Senior Center in Silver Spring late, and left only after answering every question at a gathering of about 70 senior citizens.
"This is all I do, day in and day out," Mfume said at the forum, which was sponsored by the Wheaton-Glenmont Chapter of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. "I believe that we deserve campaigns, not coronations."
Mfume quickly moved to the major themes of his campaign -- universal health care, reducing the debt, ending the Iraq war, improving education, and campaign finance reform. He repeated his campaign mantra of a "broken government" and referred to himself as "Filibuster Mfume," vowing to use the power of the Senate's filibuster rule to fight for the issues he supports.
Mfume called for universal health care with a single-payer system, saying the money being spent on the Iraq war, along with savings from switching to electronic health records, could provide the financing.
Continuing the gentlemanly jousting with Cardin, Mfume did not attack him, mentioning only that his "opponent" voted in favor of the USA Patriot Act, which he called a "draconian bill."
"I think [President Bush] is treading on grounds that could be impeachable," said Mfume, referring to the Bush administration's effect on civil liberties. "I think he has done things that warrant a greater explanation. And I wish there was not so much silence coming out of Congress."
When asked about what distinguishes him from Cardin, Mfume said, "Ben Cardin is older than me," to the laughter of everyone in the room. "And I have more hair."
Mfume also noted that Cardin does not need "special interest corporate money."
"I'm hoping that no matter what happens that he won't take anymore in the future," said Mfume. "He's a great guy. He'd be a great senator. It's just that I want to be his senator. I really do."
In the evening, Mfume participated in a roundtable discussion of the federal No Child Left Behind Act with a group of educators at the Homewood School in Ellicott City. The event was organized by a group called Educators for Mfume, which has held other similar gatherings.