Cardin and Steele face the nation

Senate hopefuls differ widely on Iraq, abortion, stem cells

Maryland Votes 2006

October 30, 2006|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,SUN REPORTER

U.S. Senate candidates Benjamin L. Cardin and Michael S. Steele presented starkly opposing positions yesterday on the Iraq war, embryonic stem cell research, abortion and judicial nominations during a nationally televised debate held nine days before Maryland voters cast ballots in one of the country's more closely watched contests.

With the balance of power in the Senate at stake Nov. 7, Cardin and Steele faced off on NBC's Meet the Press with host Tim Russert. Discussion of the Iraq war dominated the hourlong conversation, but what also emerged were portraits of stylistically distinct lawmakers.

Cardin, a staid 10-term Democratic congressman who has struggled in previous debates to rebut Steele's attacks, received less airtime than his Republican rival. Russert honed in instead on the more extroverted but substantively elusive Steele, attempting to pin down his views on controversial social issues.

The host also queried Steele about his ties to the Bush administration and whether he believes his party affiliation is a liability in Maryland, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin.

In the final minutes of the encounter, Cardin appeared more sure-footed than his rival in handling questions on abortion and stem cell research, subjects on which he is more liberal than Steele.

Iraq garnered the most attention, with both candidates struggling to present a clear strategy for withdrawal even as opinion polls show that the public has grown weary of the war. Steele, Maryland's lieutenant governor and a former head of the state Republican Party, called Iraq "a mess that we need to fix" but said he still would have opted to invade.

"I would think we'd still prosecute the war," Steele said.

Russert challenged Cardin, who voted against the 2002 Iraq war resolution, on a prior statement in which he said he would consider cutting off funding for the conflict.

"I will not support putting our troops at risk," Cardin said, noting that he wants other countries to increase their diplomatic presence to stabilize Iraq.

"There's a lot of different options that Congress can consider, including contingencies of funds," Cardin said. "And if the Democrats get back control of the United States Senate, then the amendments can be presented in a way that could be constructive in getting the president to submit a new plan."

Steele tried to shift blame for the war's missteps from the White House to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Asked whether Rumsfeld should resign, Steele said, "Let's put it this way: He wouldn't be my secretary of defense."

The lieutenant governor also said that if the situation in Iraq goes unchanged for six months that he would entertain proposals for withdrawal.

"Look, if the Iraqi people don't want this, if they're content to have this internal strife, they want civil war, they want this terrorist beachhead to be formed, then we will have to re-evaluate our policy," Steele said. "And that would be on the table, absolutely."

The Maryland encounter marked the final installment in a series of six Meet the Press Senate debates featuring the high-profile contests of the season. Previous shows presented candidates from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Missouri and Minnesota.

Polls show the Maryland contest might be growing more competitive, and the Cook Political Report last week changed its outlook from "leans Democrat" to "toss-up." A Washington Post poll published yesterday shows Cardin, a former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, leading Steele 54 percent to 43 percent. A Rasmussen Reports survey released a day earlier showed Cardin ahead, 50 percent to 45 percent.

Maryland's overwhelmingly Democratic registration numbers pose a built-in challenge for Steele, but he must also overcome impressions -- reinforced routinely by Cardin and others in the Democratic Party -- that he is beholden to President Bush, whose top officials recruited Steele to run and have raised money for his campaign.

Russert showed video yesterday from the 2004 Republican National Convention in which Steele, a featured speaker, lauded Bush for being the standard-bearer that drew him to the GOP. Noting that Steele has avoided identifying himself as a Republican in his campaign literature and on his Web site, Russert also mentioned that the candidate has called the president his "homeboy."

"If he's your homeboy, why are you running away from him?" Russert asked.

"I'm not running away from him; I'm running for the United States Senate," Steele said. "I've been outed. OK, everyone, I'm a Republican."

To reinforce his line of questioning, Russert held up a blue bumper sticker reading "Steele Democrat," and said, "That's not truth in advertising."

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