CHESTERTOWN -- In a campaign already defined by months of television advertising, million-dollar fundraising and an unprecedented barrage of direct mail brochures, a Republican face-off in Maryland's 1st District congressional race here yesterday proved that political rancor is running deep - at least between two leading GOP challengers.
The low-key Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest is in the political fight of his life, facing two well-financed state senators, Andy Harris and E.J. Pipkin, in the Feb. 12 Republican primary.
The pair, who leveled their sharpest barbs at each other yesterday, agreed on one thing: The nine-term incumbent is just not conservative enough for the district that includes portions of Harford, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties - as well as all nine counties of the Eastern Shore.
Pipkin began his remarks at two-hour candidates forum in a packed Washington College meeting room by angrily waving a glossy political brochure he said was another in a series produced by the Harris campaign to distort his record. Pipkin said Harris is trying to characterize him as a liberal who supported new state taxes at last year's special General Assembly session and through his five years in the legislature.
"I voted for every tax cut presented by Gov. Robert Ehrlich," said Pipkin, ripping the ad apart as onlookers cheered. "I've spent my entire adult life working on checkbook issues. What we have seen is half-truths, half-discussion and outright lies," said Pipkin, a former investment banker.
Candidate Robert J. Banks, a former Orphans' Court judge and staff member for former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, criticized "God-awful" commercials run by Pipkin and Harris, some of which began appearing on Baltimore and Salisbury televisions last fall.
"Come on, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves, how you've gone about this campaign," Banks said. "There's never been a race like this. It's the nastiest I've ever seen."
One of the event's organizers, former Kent County Commissioner Larry B. Beck, said he couldn't agree more.
"It's getting way too personal," Beck said. "I've never seen anything this bad. Every day you get another negative ad in the mail."
For his part, Gilchrest wore a bemused expression as his opponents bickered. The lawmaker, who was first elected in 1990, offered sometimes-rambling but detailed answers to a series of questions prepared by local Republicans who organized the event and from some of the 150 people who attended the forum.
A Marine combat veteran who won a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star in Vietnam, Gilchrest has maintained his moderate image through two recent elections while beating challengers who tried to outflank him on the political right.
"I have voted for every single tax cut offered by President Bush - every single time," Gilchrest said.
Throughout the campaign, Gilchrest has drawn questions about his loyalty after being one of two Republicans to vote with House Democrats on a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. But last week, he was endorsed by President Bush. He also has the backing of conservative former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who helped raise $50,000 at one fundraiser.
Yesterday, Gilchrest, who has taken several trips to Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, said more dialogue with insurgents and a better understanding of various factions would back up the U.S. military surge.
Harris, the father of five, called the war "a generational issue, fighting global terrorism." He said the war, and Gilchrest's record on it, motivated him to challenge the incumbent.
As in 2004, Gilchrest is opposed by the conservative Club for Growth, which is backing Harris with a series of TV ads. Harris, an anesthesiologist who is a GOP leader in the General Assembly, announced last week that he has raised more than $1 million.
Gilchrest, who for years refused to accept donations from political action committees, reversed himself this month to maintain what supporters call a level playing field. After raising about $800,000, Gilchrest has about half that left for the final two weeks of the campaign, said Tony Caligiuri, campaign director.
Harris will have about the same for late spending, depending on how much the Club for Growth and similar groups contribute.
Pipkin entered the race at the end of November. He will finance a large part of his campaign with his personal fortune. Four years ago, he spent about $2 million in an unsuccessful bid to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
Candidate Joseph A. Arminio, a defense analyst from Anne Arundel County, frequently promoted his book, The Decline and Fall of the American Way, when it was his turn to speak. Arminio said his campaign is allied with the Ron Paul presidential campaign.