Rep. James P. Moran Jr. yesterday released an e-mail from his former pollster warning that he would make his departure from the Moran campaign "profoundly uncomfortable" for the congressman.
It was one of several efforts by Moran to limit any political damage from the pollster's statement that the lawmaker made an anti-Semitic remark in a private meeting with campaign advisers.
During a debate on WTOP radio yesterday with Andrew M. Rosenberg, his opponent in Tuesday's Democratic primary, Moran denied that he made any such comment in the March 18 meeting with pollster Alan Secrest.
"I don't speak that way, I don't think that way and this didn't happen," Moran said.
Rosenberg echoed the theme of a campaign that has questioned Moran's integrity and judgment in a series of personal and public incidents.
"It's a question of a 25-year career that is most remembered by a seemingly never-ending string of self-inflicted controversies," Rosenberg, an Alexandria lawyer, said in the radio debate. He added in an interview afterward: "If you have a history of making statements that are bigoted or inappropriate, then accusations like this stick."
Moran drew Democratic opposition after making a remark at an antiwar forum in March 2003 that suggested that American Jews were pushing the country into war with Iraq. The comment angered many Jewish leaders and Democrats.
Secrest yesterday stood by his allegation that Moran used anti-Semitic language in the meeting, which both men acknowledge erupted into an angry exchange that led to Secrest's resignation last week. But the Alexandria-based pollster refused for a second day to disclose exactly what Moran said, beyond calling it "pejorative and disrespectful to a group of individuals in an anti-Semitic fashion."
Meanwhile, the Moran campaign changed the text of letters it will send this weekend to approximately 17,000 homes in Fairfax County, a newer part of Moran's 8th Congressional District, which also encompasses his base of Arlington County and Alexandria.
Dan Lucas, Moran's campaign manager, said the letters, signed by Democratic state Sens. Richard L. Saslaw and Linda T. "Toddy" Puller and Del. Mark D. Sickles, were amended to deny Secrest's allegation. The legislators represent Fairfax districts with large concentrations of Jewish Democrats, Lucas said.
Moran said he would continue to meet with his advisers today to decide what else, if anything, his campaign would do directly to reassure his constituents.
The Moran campaign described Secrest as a disgruntled vendor who was angry that the seven-term congressman did not want to use his services, opting instead for a grass-roots operation without expensive polls.
Moran's advisers released an April 30 e-mail from Secrest in which the pollster said he would sue Moran if he did not pay him $8,000 he said he was owed. The text said in part: "This I can promise you: That will only be the tip of the iceberg. . . . When I go, it will not be quietly, gentlemen. And it will be profoundly uncomfortable for you . . . profoundly. And it will take place very quickly."
Secrest said the e-mail was unrelated to the meeting. "The bottom line is, any reference I made to a public scene had to do with Jim's failure to pay his contracted fees, not his unfortunate comments . . . and the fact that it looked like I was going to have to use an attorney to compel payment."
Secrest said he has nothing to gain from making the allegation of anti-Semitism, has no ties to Rosenberg or other potential candidates in the race and is not "an agent, plant or proxy for anybody."
Secrest said Moran's campaign has paid his firm more than $200,000 over eight campaigns, beginning with Moran's election to Congress in 1990. Any dispute over fees in the March 18 meeting was unrelated to Moran's refusal to acknowledge and apologize "for an inappropriate, mean-spirited comment that was wholly consistent with what he said and got in trouble for over a year ago in Reston," Secrest said.
The uncorroborated accusation prompted passionate reactions from Moran supporters, who predicted that the congressman would draw votes from the controversy rather than lose them. But the Rosenberg camp said the incident was proof that the outspoken congressman had crossed an inappropriate line again.
"Do we have to know the exact remark?" said Sophie Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington and a Rosenberg supporter. "That's a question for Alan. . . . But Jim is constantly singling the Jewish community out. There's been so much bad, it's time to jettison Jim."
Other Jewish organizations that had spoken out against Moran's comments on the Iraq war last year steered clear of the latest dispute, saying it was too murky to sort out so close to the primary.
"It's difficult to draw conclusions about a remark we did not hear and the nature of which Mr. Secrest will not divulge," said David Bernstein, Washington area director of the American Jewish Committee.
But others said they were just as furious that Secrest would go public with a private dispute so near to the primary.
"The allegations are hogwash," said Saslaw, whose western Alexandria and central Fairfax district cuts through the 8th. "Where's the beef? I think people are going to be furious . . . over the fact that no one heard the remarks. There will be backlash in favor of Moran."
Former Vermont governor and onetime presidential candidate Howard Dean came to Moran's defense yesterday as he endorsed the congressman before 150 supporters at a Tysons Corner hotel.
Moran "had the guts to support me when nobody else would, and I'm a loyal person," Dean said. "I do take allegations of anti-Semitism very seriously. But . . . this is an unsubstantiated news report. I don't change my politics based on unsubstantiated news reports, particularly in the last week of a campaign."