HAGERSTOWN -- Republican Senate candidate Michael S. Steele sought yesterday to rekindle questions about whether his opponent was involved in the illegal downloading of his credit report, though the incident occurred in a national Democratic Party office 14 months before U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin won the primary.
With less than four weeks until the Nov. 7 election, Steele lit into Democrats for failing to apologize for the crime, committed in July 2005 by a young researcher for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington. A new Steele campaign fundraising letter directly links Democratic Senate nominee Cardin to the credit report theft. Steele is also airing a television ad that insinuates that Cardin was involved.
Cardin "is part of a leadership structure that allows it to happen," Steele told reporters after a candidates forum sponsored by the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce.
Steele's emphasis on the credit report is the latest sign of a campaign strategy that political observers say has largely focused on style over detailed policy proposals. During his time answering questions crafted by the pro-business organization, Cardin sought to set the record straight.
"If you're asked, `When did you stop beating your wife,' people start to wonder whether there's any truth to it or not," Cardin said to about 150 people gathered in a Sheraton ballroom. "There is absolutely - and Michael Steele knows this - there is no connection whatsoever, no connection whatsoever, with the episode that happened with Michael Steele's credit report and Ben Cardin or my campaign.
"Mr. Steele knows that, and he's running an ad on television that gives the impression that my campaign had something to do with that. Personally, I think that speaks about the ethics of campaigning. ... I don't know how much firmer I can be than that."
The candidates' joint appearance, the second before the general election, was structured so the two nominees did not appear together. Cardin fielded questions for 45 minutes. On his way out the door, he and Steele greeted each other and shook hands before Steele addressed the gathering.
They separately addressed a range of matters, including the Iraq war and soaring federal budget deficits. Mindful of his audience in conservative Western Maryland, Cardin, a 10-term congressman, stressed his bipartisan efforts on pension reform and health care, mentioning by name several Republican lawmakers with whom he had teamed up on legislation.
Cardin, whose ads emphasize Steele's relationship with President Bush, was asked to justify linking the two men.
"Is it fair for me to associate Michael Steele with George Bush? Yes, when they agree on the same policies," Cardin said, noting their opposition to embryonic stem cell research and support for privatizing Social Security, among other shared views. "Michael Steele and George Bush agree on a lot of the same policies. ... I don't know how you change the direction of America when you agree with the president on so many issues."
Though the president and several members of his administration have raised money for Steele, the lieutenant governor said he is weary of defending the Bush record.
"I'm tired of this `I've got to justify everything the administration does or everything it doesn't do,'" he told reporters. "Ben Cardin in our last debate mentioned the president 113 times. If he wanted to run against George Bush, he should've done it two years ago. ... I'm not going to stand here and try to be the whipping boy for or against the Republican Party."
Cardin also criticized Steele, a former state GOP chairman, for supporting Bush's tax cuts. He said the federal budget is "out of control" on Bush's watch, with more than $320 billion spent on the war in Iraq and money wasted on tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
"I think it's a moral imperative to pay our bills," Cardin said.
Cardin has said the country needs to start withdrawing troops from Iraq and added yesterday that "it was not in our interest to use a pre-emptive strike in Iraq." Steele expressed concern about the Iraq war during the chamber event but stopped short of saying that the United States should pull out. He said getting out now would be "bad policy."
"It's about time that the administration stands up and says to the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people, `This is yours,'" Steele said.
The Steele campaign has worked strenuously to keep the credit report matter alive. Last year, two senatorial committee researchers left their jobs when their supervisors learned that one had used Steele's Social Security number to obtain his credit report online. One did not face charges, but another, Lauren B. Weiner, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 150 hours of community service.