Senate hopefuls launch tough talk

Sharp exchanges mark candidates' first public debate

Maryland Votes 2006

October 04, 2006|By Jennifer Skalka and Matthew Hay Brown | Jennifer Skalka and Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporters

The first public debate of the general election campaign for U.S. Senate was a combative two-hour session in Baltimore last night during which Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin said his opponent stands with the president on issues from Iraq to tax cuts to embryonic stem cell research. Republican Michael S. Steele said Cardin should learn to "shut up and listen."

"What you just witnessed is the problem of Washington," Steele, the lieutenant governor, said after Cardin's opening remarks pinned the GOP nominee to the President Bush's policies. "They run their mouths, but they do not listen. They do not take the time to look around to see who else is in the room. ... He still has not learned to first look around the room and shut up and listen."

Steele's comments were met with a mix of applause and boos. Cardin, a 10-term congressman and former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, later responded: "I've had more town hall meetings in the last several years than you've had in your whole public life."

The Greater Baltimore Urban League hosted the panel, which included Kevin Zeese, who is backed by the Green, Libertarian and Populist parties. About 150 people packed the one-time church to hear the candidates explain their positions on expanding access to education, the war in Iraq and the Mark Foley congressional page scandal, among other issues.

Cardin said repeatedly last night that he wants the campaign to be waged on the candidates' policy views and that voters deserve a frank discussion of how they would vote if elected in November. But it was the stark differences in demeanor and style between the two leading candidates that were most apparent. And even when they did expound on their political positions, Steele and Cardin could not resist launching missives at each other.

"One of my opponents at least has had 20 years of public service, but then when I look at his district I don't see that translated," Steele said. "At what point, Mr. Cardin, do you begin to pay attention to what's going on in your own backyard?"

That line drew intense boos from the audience, which included - judging from opening applause, at least - loyalists of each of the candidates.

Cardin said he disagrees with Steele's support of the war in Iraq, his opposition to both an increase in the minimum wage and providing federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and his endorsement of the president's prescription drug policies.

"Michael Steele and I disagree about many of the issues in this campaign, so let's talk about the issues," Cardin said.

Steele, pressed by moderator Charles Robinson of Maryland Public Television on Iraq, agreed that "it's not going well; no, it's not." But, he said, "We need to make sure that we are there to finish the job. We need to put in place the strategy to win. ... This is not the time to step back."

Cardin said that the United States should start a "systematic reduction of American troops." He spoke of engaging the international community to train Iraqi forces, convening an international conference to negotiate a cease-fire among warring militias and using nongovernmental organizations for reconstruction and humanitarian aid.

Zeese called for an immediate military and corporate withdrawal from Iraq, a process that he said would take four to six months.

"It is time to give Iraq back to the Iraqis," Zeese said. " ... Everything that we fear is made more likely by our staying, whether it's terrorism, whether it's instability, whether it's civil war, whether it's theocracy, whether it's loss of control of the oil."

Steele was asked about the proper response to allegations that the Republican House leadership had known for months about inappropriate electronic messages that Rep. Mark Foley of Florida sent to male pages before he resigned last week.

"We need to investigate every member who touched this matter," Steele said. "And if they are found conduct unbecoming, then they, too, should resign before they are removed."

He was asked whether this would include House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "Including the speaker," Steele said.

Though he hasn't been included in major polls to date and has raised just $70,000 to his opponents' millions, Zeese labored hard behind the scenes to be included in the forum. He criticized both major political parties for being dominated by special interests and kowtowing to corporations, saying the country is "being sold to the highest bidder." He urged voters to consider alternatives.

"The only way we can get what we want is to vote for what we want," Zeese said. "If we continue to vote based on fear and manipulation, we will be afraid, and we will be manipulated."

Steele and Cardin found some room for agreement on the No Child Left Behind federal education mandate, with both calling for additional funding. But Cardin said the Bush tax cuts, which benefit the nation's wealthiest citizens, and the war in Iraq have drained necessary public funding from education programs and other social services.

"There's a real difference between Michael Steele and Ben Cardin," Cardin said. "There's a real difference between where the Bush Republicans are leading this nation and where we need to go as a country. Ben Cardin is going to be an independent voice in the United States Senate to change the direction of this nation."

Steele later retorted: "How can you be a change agent when you vote 95 percent with your own party?"

As he has throughout the campaign, Steele pitched his candidacy as a model for empowerment. He described himself as the son of "a sharecropper's daughter" whose mother earned the minimum wage for 45 years. And now, he said, he is the highest-ranking black official in Maryland history. He asked the predominantly African-American audience to look past both his skin color and his party affiliation in making their choice.

"A Senate seat is a terrible thing to waste," he said.

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