The candidates for Congress in Maryland's 8th District sparred yesterday over many of the issues dominating the presidential race, including the war in Iraq, the future of Social Security and how best to guard against another terrorist attack.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) and Republican challenger Charles R. Floyd laid out starkly different philosophies during the fourth and final debate of a campaign that is taking an increasingly nasty tone.
During much of the debate, held at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, Floyd accused Van Hollen of being too liberal and not aggressive enough in trying to protect the United States from terrorism. As a former military officer and Bush administration official, Floyd argued that he would be a more effective leader in the Republican-controlled Congress.
"Before you vote, look at my record. Do you want a retired military officer and a businessman representing you in Congress or another lawyer?" Floyd asked, referring to Van Hollen. "I believe my opponent is even too liberal for Montgomery County."
Van Hollen noted his accomplishments in Congress, including efforts to secure additional funding for education, and the endorsements he has received from environmental, gun control, veterans and women's rights organizations.
"I have done my best to fight for the priorities and values of the community and the county," Van Hollen said during his opening remarks. "We are going to be hearing a litany of distortions by my opponent. But I'm not going to use all my time to go through them."
Seconds later, Floyd told the audience that Van Hollen had never been to Israel or the West Bank. In fact, Van Hollen visited both places in 1995, when he was in the Maryland Senate, during a trip organized by the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington.
The debate occurred as Van Hollen and Floyd are cranking up their campaigns and each is suggesting that the other is employing negative tactics.
Van Hollen, who holds a substantial fundraising advantage, is facing a much different race this year than in 2002, when he unseated Constance A. Morella. As a moderate Republican, Morella agreed with Van Hollen on many issues, and much of the race became a referendum on which party should control Congress.
This time, Van Hollen is facing an opponent who is open about his conservative viewpoints and tries to align himself with President Bush and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). "You face a clear choice in this election," Van Hollen said during the debate.
Although Floyd's strategy could be risky in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, he continues to mount an active campaign that he hopes will resonate with voters.
Yesterday, Floyd, who spent 20 years in the military and later worked in the State Department under Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, echoed the president's stance on the war on terrorism.
"We are at war with terrorists. To make sure they don't attack our country, I am going to go after them where they live, where they eat and where they breathe so we don't have to face them again," Floyd said.
Floyd also said he supported the invasion of Iraq. He cited Van Hollen's vote against $87 billion in money for Iraq in accusing him of voting against funding to properly equip soldiers. Van Hollen, noting his endorsement by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, countered that he strongly supports the military.
"I agree we should go after terrorists that harm the U.S.," Van Hollen said. "That is what we did in Afghanistan and did to get al Qaeda, but with respect to Iraq, we should have waited for weapons inspectors to finish the job."
In response to an audience question, Van Hollen said he opposed Bush's proposal to let younger workers invest part of their Social Security contributions in the stock market. "I do trust the American people; what I do not trust is the corporations, like Enron and like WorldCom and other companies that the American people might invest their money in," Van Hollen said. "I do not think we should be rolling the dice."
Floyd said he supports the concept. "Either taxes go up or benefits go down or you give people a choice," Floyd said.