Republican Jimmy Mathis has struggled to be heard in the campaign for Maryland's 2nd District congressional seat. He's raised hardly any money. He says the party hierarchy has offered little help other than a handshake.
Mathis mocks his troubles in a lighthearted commercial running on a few local cable stations. "I'm Jimmy Mathis, and I approve this message," he says into the camera. A voice-over announcer responds, "Good for you, Jimmy. Now go tell someone who cares."
This has been life as a Republican political newcomer in the 2nd District, says Mathis, a 28- year-old video production business owner. The Rorschach test of a district was drawn to gobble up as many Democrats as possible in parts of Baltimore, Harford and Anne Arundel counties and the city. The incumbent, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, has more than 20 years of experience representing the area at various levels.
On Thursday night, Mathis got a chance when Ruppersberger agreed to an hourlong debate at Warren Elementary in Cockeysville. The two candidates talked about Iraq, immigration, health care - and, to Mathis' delight, Social Security, an issue he feels people are ignoring.
"No one's dealing with this," Mathis told the crowd. "The only thing the government has shown me is that they can't handle it."
Ruppersberger, 60, brought supporters wearing green and gold "Go Dutch" T-shirts. His wife and mother were in attendance.
"I've really made constituent service one of my highest priorities, and I'll match my staff with anybody in the country," said Ruppersberger, who served two terms as Baltimore County executive before running for Congress in 2002.
After flirting with the idea of running for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Paul S. Sarbanes, Ruppersberger decided to run for re-election and continue his work on the House Intelligence Committee. He is pushing a plan for Iraq that would keep troops on the perimeter of the most volatile urban zones and turn policing responsibilities to Iraqi forces.
Mathis decided to run in the GOP primary on the last day to file, when he saw no other candidates had entered the race. There ended up being two other Republican candidates, and Mathis emerged with 41 percent of the vote. Despite securing the nomination, he says he hasn't received much support from party leaders, though his self-produced campaign commercial has been airing on four local cable channels.
"Dutch is not going to lose this election," said Richard Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University who moderated Thursday's debate. "But it's a very decent thing to have a debate like this. This is what politics is all about."
Calling on his experience as a local elected official, Ruppersberger said he favors "pay as you go" financing for the federal government. He said the Bush tax cuts cannot be effective unless spending is cut, and called the estate tax "un-American."
Mathis argues that the cuts should be made permanent, giving money back to taxpayers who, he believes, are squeezed far too often.
In Iraq, Ruppersberger said the military has to change strategy. He said he didn't agree with removing Saddam Hussein from power, but that the situation in the Middle East requires a continued presence. His plan - shifting policing to the Iraqi military, with American special operations teams on the perimeters and available as backup - has been presented to President Bush twice, and he says it is gaining traction.
"We need to start improving our relationships all over the world," he said. "We have to do more than battle our way out of it."
Mathis said he agreed with Ruppersberger's perimeter strategy in Iraq - but not yet.
"I don't think we're there yet," Mathis said. "We're on the right track, and the more and more we move in, the tougher and tougher the fight's going to be."
Vatz asked the candidates what they thought about the potential for a Democratic-controlled House effort to impeach President Bush. Both said they opposed the idea, calling Washington too partisan.
Ruppersberger, who considers himself a moderate Democrat, said he intends to sit down with the potential new House speaker, Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, and discuss finding a "middle ground" between the parties.