By Matthew Mosk and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 4, 2006
BALTIMORE, Oct. 3 -- Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and U.S. Rep. Benjamin Cardin stripped away the niceties and exchanged sharp words Tuesday night in their first debate in the race for the U.S. Senate.
Steele, the Republican, at one point told the Baltimore congressman to "shut up and listen" to the citizens of the state. Cardin unloaded on Steele for failing to address a series of issues while campaigning -- most pointedly, the war in Iraq.
The debate offered the first chance to see the striking contrasts between the two major party candidates vying for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D).
The physical differences between the two, standing on stage in a Gothic 19th-century church building in downtown Baltimore, were impossible to miss -- Steele, 47, 6-foot-4 and looking polished in a designer suit; Cardin, 62, short and a bit portly in standard dark pinstripe, looking every bit the bookish legislative technician.
For Cardin, a chief goal of the debate was to turn the focus away from style and onto substance, where there are also sharp differences between the two that put him more in line with the views of Maryland's large population of Democratic voters.
"It's not about how nice we appear or how we deal with friendliness or how well we listen, because I'm a pretty good listener," Cardin said. "It's about how you are going to represent the interests of the people of Maryland."
In the first remarks of the night, before 300 people, Cardin checked off a long list of positions he has taken: opposing the Iraq war, supporting a minimum wage increase, backing embryonic stem cell research. He urged Steele to address each one, and concluded that his experience on Capitol Hill would put him in the position to "get things done."
"I have been effective when the Democrats controlled Congress and when Republicans have controlled Congress," he said. "As a result, I've changed Washington."
When Steele took his first turn to speak, he tried to turn Cardin's 20 years in Congress and 40 years in elected office against him. The man who took his first elected job in 2002 repeatedly described himself as an agent of change and his opponent as someone who has been on Capitol Hill too long.
"I do not want to go to Washington to retire," Steele said. "I want to go get something done."
The lieutenant governor, seizing the offensive, chided Cardin for not acknowledging the presence of independent candidate Kevin Zeese.
"What you just watched was the problem of Washington," Steele said, stepping out from the podium to face Cardin. "They run their mouths, but they do not listen. After 40 years of service, honorable service, he still has not learned to look around the room and shut up and listen. That was a lesson my mother taught me a long time ago."
Zeese, who has the backing of the Green, Libertarian and Populist parties, spoke next.
"I don't think we've been more off track than we are now," Zeese said of the nation. He derided the war and the efforts by special interests to control Washington. "We all know that the elephant in the room is that this country is being sold to the highest bidder."
Cardin succeeded only somewhat at his primary aim: pinning down Steele on issues that the lieutenant governor has avoided discussing: the Iraq war, health-care policy, Social Security.
The starkest differences between the candidates emerged during a question about the Iraq war. Cardin called for an immediate redeployment of troops without a specific timetable for withdrawal. Zeese called for an immediate withdrawal. Steele said that troops should stay but that the United States should "shift our tactics."
"This is not the time to step back," Steele said.
The moderator pressed Steele: "Tell me Mr. Steele, are things going badly?"
"In what respect?" Steele replied, prompting derisive laughter from the crowd. Pressed again, Steele conceded: "It's not going well, no."
The stylistic distinctions were ever-present on stage. On several occasions, Cardin slipped into using acronyms and impenetrable government-speak, while Steele fell back on his compelling personal story.
Steele presented himself as an independent voice, and he challenged Cardin's assertion that he would "change the direction of this nation" in the Senate.
"I appreciate your definition of change, but, frankly, it's an outdated definition," Steele responded. "How can you be a change agent when you vote 95 percent of the time with your party?"
Cardin disagreed, saying after the debate that his long record shows that "I call it as I see it."
Steele came armed with numbers for one of the most consistent lines of attack against Cardin: his campaign contributions from political action committees tied to large drug and energy companies.
In commercials and in person, Steele has suggested that Cardin is beholden to special interests in Washington. In reality, both of them have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from PACs. Steele has enlisted a group of lobbyists -- known as Team Steele -- to solicit PAC contributions for him.
Both campaigns view debates as critical in the hotly contested race, although it remains unclear how many there will be. Among Cardin's advisers, the debates are viewed as a chance to humanize a candidate who has spent the past 40 years in public life, and to turn the race into a clash of policy ideas.
For Steele, the debates are a chance to present himself as a serious alternative to Cardin, even for Democrats who might normally shy away from supporting someone who has served as chairman of the Maryland Republican Party.
For Zeese, they offer a chance to become known and to establish himself as a viable alternative to the two major-party candidates.
The setting for Tuesday night's debate, at the Greater Baltimore Urban League headquarters, once part of the underground railroad, was not accidental -- both Cardin and Steele are trying hard to gain support from within Maryland's large African American community. Cardin has been pushing for backing from black voters, who are among the most consistent Democratic voters of any demographic group.
Steele, the first African American elected statewide in Maryland, has publicized a series of insults from Democrats that he says were race-based. "Stop the noise. Stop the race baiting, stop the fear mongering, and deal with me as a man," he said.
Even before Tuesday night's event, Steele and Cardin were slugging it out on the airwaves with two new campaign ads.
Steele's ad accuses Cardin of "trash" politics and portrays him as a Washington insider, while Cardin repeatedly ties Steele to the unpopular Republican president.
"First, Ben Cardin's team hacks into my credit report, steals my Social Security number. Oh yeah: They pled guilty in federal court. Then the personal smears. You know the type," Steele says.
The hacking is reference to a former researcher at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee who pleaded guilty last year to fraudulently obtaining Steele's credit report online.
Talk of "personal smears" could be a reference to a Cardin staff member who was fired last month after it was revealed that her blog included racial and ethnic slurs.
Cardin responded with a commercial that stresses his differences with Steele.
"I support expanding stem cell research to save lives; Michael Steele and George Bush won't," Cardin says. "On issue after issue, Michael Steele stands with George Bush. I stand with you."