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Debate Targets Death Penalty

In the Senate debate, the two leading candidates seemed to reverse roles at times. Cardin, who is Jewish, invoked his faith and promised to involve the religious community in his work on Capitol Hill, just as Steele, a former Catholic seminarian, often does.

"I think we've lost our moral direction in this country," Cardin told about 100 religious leaders at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden.

Steele expressed support for changing discriminatory sentencing laws for offenses involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine and for granting voting rights to former felons -- issues often championed by liberal groups.

"When someone stumbles, we have a responsibility to find a way to pick them up and help them," he said. "We shouldn't just at that point put our foot on their neck and keep them down."

Sitting between Cardin and Steele, independent candidate Kevin Zeese urged the audience to reject them both. "Change has not come from status quo parties, it's come from the outside," said Zeese, who has the support of the Green, Libertarian and Populist parties.

Cardin called on Steele to denounce a Republican handbook for poll watchers, which he equated to "voter suppression." The state GOP's guide encourages its volunteers to aggressively challenge the credentials of voters.

Steele, a former chairman of the state party, said after the debate, "I have not seen it," and the "state party does what it does."

"This is not a voter suppression effort," he added. "However, to the extent that voters feel intimidated by it, that voters feel some concern about it, then the state party needs to address it."

The tensest moment came after a question about the death penalty, which Cardin supports "only for the worst of the worst," and Steele and Zeese oppose.

Cardin seized on the issue to criticize Steele for not making public his review of the death penalty in Maryland.

Steele said that he "didn't want to politicize the issue" and that it was the governor's prerogative to release the findings. He expressed concern about the system, saying, "there is not just geographic disparity, Congressman, there is also racial disparity, which you have not addressed, and there is also economic disparity, which you failed to address."

The Landover church was packed with pastors from some of the largest African American congregations in the county. After the debate, many said they were torn between loyalty to a black candidate and to a political party they have been aligned with for decades.

Zeese prodded both candidates about the corporate interests that have contributed to their campaigns and grilled Cardin on a vote supporting the USA Patriot Act, which gave the federal government far-reaching investigative powers after Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Cardin, who was first elected to Congress in 1986, responded, "First, let me point out in regards to that point that the Patriot Act predates my elections to the United States Congress."

Spokesman Oren Shur said Cardin misspoke and intended to refer to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act from the 1970s and "the original intelligence laws that the Patriot Act updates."

Staff writers Hamil Harris, Raymond McCaffrey and Steve Vogel contributed to this report.

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