Steele Keeps Cardin on Defensive About D.C. Suburbs

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, October 26, 2006

Long before yesterday's debate began, it was clear that Michael Steele was going to use his only televised meeting with Ben Cardin aimed at the Washington market to make the case that Cardin doesn't know beans about the D.C. area.

And sure enough, with just a couple of well-aimed questions, Steele, who grew up in the District and lives in Prince George's County, managed to transform his Baltimore-centric opponent in the U.S. Senate race into a stammering, defensive congressman from another planet -- or, at least, from a part of Maryland where nobody knows or cares about Metro's proposed Purple Line.

On NewsChannel 8, Lt. Gov. Steele displayed an attractive blend of courtesy and commanding presence, just the right touch for a Republican who wants to keep the focus on a candidate's "personal journey" as much as on the issues. Cardin, by contrast, settled for happily accepting Steele's acknowledgment that the Democrat "is good on policy."

So while Cardin touted his work on pensions and reforming the IRS, Steele didn't mention a single accomplishment of his own, preferring to stress his ability to "understand what it's like to be . . . a mother and worry that your child is going to be jacked on the way to school."

Steele and Cardin inhabit two different realms of politics. In Steele's world, it doesn't matter if you take big corporate money, or speak on behalf of President Bush at the Republican convention, or enlist radio talk show host Sean Hannity to appear at your fundraiser, because Steele is a decent man who "will call it the way I see it, regardless of party, regardless of ideology." Steele's magic is that he is equally comfortable running with the Bush crowd and nodding in agreement with the anti-establishment views of Green Party candidate Kevin Zeese, even as Zeese railed against big corporations and the defense and oil industries.

In Cardin's political reality, what matters are old-fashioned values of party and policy. The congressman, no orator, doesn't even bother to bone up on the top issues in Maryland's most-populous region. Asked, first by Steele, then by moderator Bruce DePuyt, then again by Steele, and then again by me after the debate, to say where the proposed Purple Line would run between Montgomery and Prince George's counties, Cardin failed each time.

"Right now, we're talking about taking it from Chevy Chase--" and then Cardin interrupted himself and angrily said, "I'm not going to answer your question," which opened the way for Steele to retort:

"This gentleman has no clue about Metro, traffic, congestion in this region. . . . I live here, and I sit in traffic every day."

Cardin later defended his ignorance, saying that what's important is not his knowledge, but his vote: "I support the funding of the Purple Line." Even if he doesn't know where it would go. In fact, while the Purple Line might pass through Chevy Chase, its route would extend from Bethesda to New Carrollton. Cardin's style may win partial credit in the backwater of Baltimore, but in the big city, he scored a zero.

Steele, like Sen. George Allen across the river and many other Republicans in this war-weary nation, hopes voters focus on issues close to home. Cardin asks people to look beyond the local and think about a war gone awry and a health system gone amok.

The practiced Steele took the high road on Cardin's latest TV ad, a tacky appeal to emotion in which the actor Michael J. Fox, his body swaying from Parkinson's disease, endorsed Cardin because of his support of embryonic stem cell research. The Republican joined Cardin in rejecting Rush Limbaugh's ugly attack on Fox, whom the talk show host accused of faking his incapacity to make a more affecting ad.

The other Steele, the one who doesn't take questions, talk to reporters or even release his schedule as other candidates do, seems to fear the political fray. Steele spokesman Doug Heye says the idea that the candidate "was hiding from the press after he spent an hour answering questions in a debate and then went to another open press event [is] laughable."

But after yesterday's debate, while Cardin gamely stood and took one tough question after another, Steele -- even after chalking up an impressive victory on TV -- scurried away. "No questions," a grim-faced aide barked after I got one sentence out of Steele. The winner of the debate seemed afraid of unrehearsed to and fro, something that happens quite a bit in politics.

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