The first and likely only debate between Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Republican challenger Eric Wargotz appeared unlikely to alter the dynamics of a U.S. Senate contest that seems all but decided.
Even as the two met Monday on Maryland Public Television, a new Baltimore Sun poll showed the Democratic incumbent with a nearly 2-to-1 advantage.
Wargotz did his best to play on anti-establishment and anti-incumbent sentiment, promising not to be part of the "same old, same old" in Washington. In fact, the word "old" popped out of his mouth several times during the half-hour program.
When Mikulski broke into a longwinded Wargotz answer at one point ("I thought we weren't going to filibuster," she complained to moderator Jeff Salkin), the 53-year-old challenger said he'd try to wrap up quickly, then added, "I'm new at this. You're an old pro."
Mikulski, 74, is seeking a fifth term which, if completed, would match her with former colleague Paul Sarbanes for longevity in Maryland. The Sun poll shows her with 59 percent support among likely voters, to 32 percent for Wargotz, a Queen Anne's County commissioner. Eight percent were undecided in the survey, conducted Oct. 15-20, with a 3.5 percent margin of possible sampling error.
Mikulski was viewed favorably by 58 percent of those surveyed and unfavorably by 31 percent, the latest sign of her longstanding popularity. Her favorability was higher than that of either Gov. Martin O'Malley or former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.; voters were not asked to rate Wargotz.
During the MPT debate, Mikulski stuck to the formula that has worked for her over the years, softening her image by referring to herself as "Senator Barb," repeatedly drawing on her record of delivering federal money for the state and throwing out the corny one-liners that are her stock-in-trade.
"I'm not a slogan senator, I'm a solution senator," she said in her closing comments, neatly coining another slogan.
Their MPT joint appearance, probably the only opportunity for voters to see the candidates side-by-side, never grew heated.
The Wargotz team has tried to accuse Mikulski of refusing to debate, but the front-running senator could easily have ducked the encounter without damage.
As it was, she took a risk — albeit a small one — by agreeing to sit across a table from her opponent in the Owings Mills studio. The danger: that a Mikulski gaffe or other unexpected development, caught on camera, might alter the outcome of next Tuesday's election.
That did not appear to happen.
Mikulski defended the Democratic stimulus package as a plus for the economy, talked about the need to do more to help small businesses create jobs, touted her work on health care legislation that will benefit women and said she favors a moratorium on new home foreclosures.
She also called for carbon pricing as part of new energy legislation and said it is both an environmental and a national security imperative. Reducing American reliance on imported oil will "keep us from funding these petro-jihadists that want to kill us," she said. "Every time we fill up a tank, we're filling up a terrorist's gun."
Wargotz, a physician, tried to work his campaign message into every answer: Mikulski has been on Capitol Hill for too long (34 years, he noted) and has failed to fix many of the state's problems. He said he has the new ideas that Maryland and the country need.
Most of those he mentioned — extending the Bush tax cuts, repealing the just-passed health care law and reducing large jury awards in medical malpractice cases — have been long championed by Republicans. Mikulski, too, touted long-standing proposals, including public-private partnerships to create new jobs statewide, from the docks of Baltimore to high-tech labs in the Interstate-270 corridor.
"We've heard this same old rhetoric," Wargotz said, "yet we don't create jobs. In Maryland, our unemployment rate went up again last month. What we need are fresh ideas."
Both candidates said afterward that they were satisfied with their performance. Wargotz used a chance hallway encounter to introduce his wife and three children to Mikulski, who was gracious and told them she was sure she'd be seeing them around.
Mikulski has raised more than $5 million for her re-election bid and is stepping up her spending on TV and radio ads. Wargotz, by contrast, has lacked the resources to mount a serious statewide effort. He has raised about $225,000 and loaned his campaign $850,000.
First elected to the Senate in 1986, Mikulski has never been seriously challenged for re-election in heavily Democratic Maryland.
In 2004, she was re-elected with 65 percent of the vote. That year, her opponent was another wealthy Republican from the Eastern Shore, state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, who spent $1 million of his own money on the campaign.