By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 1, 2006
With less than two weeks to the Democratic primary, Maryland U.S. Senate candidates Kweisi Mfume and Benjamin L. Cardin tried to draw the sharpest contrasts they could in a calm, hour-long debate last night.
Throughout, the candidates spoke in measured tones but stridently against the Iraq war. They called for energy independence and universal health care and framed almost every comment around the notion that the nation needs to change direction.
But Mfume repeatedly took subtle but unmistakable digs at Cardin for what he said was a lack of passion and for the two decades he has spent in Washington. People in Washington get Potomac fever, Mfume said. "You get so close to the shores of the Potomac, you think God put you there. Well, people put you there."
Another theme Mfume repeated: "We'll both be a vote. But I'll be a vote and a voice."
Cardin, in turn, took pains to bring the discussion back to his record. He said his young granddaughters "think I'm the funniest person in the world, so I don't understand where this criticism comes from."
"Both of us will be strong voices," he said, but his record shows he can "work in a partisan environment and get results."
The two are among the 18 seeking their party's nomination, but this was a rare televised debate in a campaign that began 18 months ago. Thirty minutes before it began, police arrested one Democratic candidate -- American University professor Allan J. Lichtman -- who was locked out of the Maryland Public Television studio in Owings Mills. After a 15-minute standoff, Baltimore County police dragged Lichtman and his wife in handcuffs away from the studio's front door. He was charged with criminal trespass.
"This is Democracy?" Lichtman shouted repeatedly. "Let the voters decide."
Inside, the ire seemed reserved for President Bush. The president's approval ratings are lower in Maryland than in the nation as a whole, and Democrats believe this could put a strong wind behind their efforts in the general election.
The two candidates repeatedly lashed out against the president over the wars in Iraq and on terror and over his handling of the Hurricane Katrina response.
At one point, the two were asked if there was anything about the president of which they approved. Both easily wiggled out of the question, saying they agreed with some of the promises made by Bush, but regretted his failure to deliver on them.
"This president doesn't understand diplomacy," Cardin said about the war. On taxes, Cardin said, "This administration is the most irresponsible" in history.
"This president is wrong," Mfume said when asked about the war. "Like the president, I'm old enough to remember Vietnam. We left in shame."
Mfume, who is trailing Cardin in most polls, made more efforts to draw out differences between them in their positions on the war. Mfume called for an immediate withdrawal of troops, and Cardin recommended bringing 10,000 of the 138,000 troops stationed in Iraq home each month. Mfume criticized Cardin's vote on an extension of the USA Patriot Act. Most pointedly, Mfume raised questions about what he said was the special-interest financing of Cardin's campaign.
Cardin has accepted money from political action committees, and Mfume has said he would refuse those funds. According to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission yesterday, Cardin has $1.6 million on hand, and Mfume has a little more than $300,000.
When Mfume took after Cardin over his decision to take money from special interests, Cardin responded by calling for strong campaign finance reform. But added that he had "stood up to the drug companies. I've stood up for the consumers of this country, and I'm proud of my record . . . Judge me on my record."
Cardin, in turn, tried to bring the debate back to his record, which he said distinguished him as a candidate. Though not present during the debate, several of the other Democrats seeking the nomination, as well as Green Party candidate Kevin B. Zeese, clustered outside the studio. It was their second day protesting their exclusion from the debate under rules devised by the League of Women Voters to narrow the field to only those who have consistently polled more than 15 percent.
They included Lichtman, Montgomery County businessman Josh Rales, who has invested more than $5 million of his own money in his bid and former Baltimore county executive Dennis Rasmussen.
The winner of the Democratic primary faces a tough general election challenge from a well-financed and well-known Republican, Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.