The top Democratic candidates for Maryland's open U.S. Senate seat squared off in a debate Thursday, ahead of the Sept. 12 primary to see who will run against presumptive Republican candidate Lt. Gov. Michael Steele.
U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin and former congressman and president of the NAACP Kweisi Mfume outlined their platforms and left the bulk of their criticism for President Bush and his administration in a mostly amicable debate.
Cardin referred to President Bush's remarks from the past week as "just wrong" because they "try to cast those of us who disagree with him as somehow not interested in the security of America or not patriotic."
Mfume used similar language, "This president is wrong [about the war in Iraq]. Like the president, I'm old enough to remember Vietnam. We left in shame."
The division between the two candidates on Iraq has to do with a timetable for troop withdrawal: Mfume wants a timeframe for forces to pull out of Iraq, while Cardin, who voted against the war in 2003 and frequently criticizes the Bush administration's direction, does not insist on one. He did say that "it is reasonable to expect that 10,000 [troops] could come home a month."
Mfume chastised Cardin for receiving campaign money from special interests groups. Cardin defended his record by mentioning his support for the McCain-Feingold bill on campaign finance reform. According to recent Federal Election Commission records, Cardin has $1.6 million on hand whereas Mfume has a little more than $300,000.
Throughout the debate, Mfume tried to distance himself from Cardin by establishing his opponent as a Washington insider, referring to the "Potomac fever" lawmakers get for staying too long in the sheltered nation's capital. "You get so close to the shores of the Potomac, you think God put you there," said Mfume. "Well, people put you there."
Cardin responded by saying both he and Mfume were elected to the House of Representatives in 1986 and worked closely with each other as colleagues and friends. He also referred to his 10 terms in Congress as a good thing, telling voters to "judge me on my record."
Recent polling shows Cardin surpassing Mfume. A June poll conducted by The Washington Post showed Mfume ahead of Cardin by 6 points, with a significant portion of voters undecided. On Wednesday, a poll by the nonpartisan Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies indicated that likely voters preferred Cardin 43 percent to Mfume's 30 percent.
Steele remains a competitive candidate in either potential match up, with the gap between him and the Democratic nominee between 4 or 5 points.
The organizers of the debate, the League of Women Voters of Maryland, set a guideline that only candidates who had received at least 15 percent support in a nonpartisan political poll could participate. This angered some of the other 16 candidates in the race for the Democratic nomination.
Three of the other candidates, American University history professor Allan Lichtman, businessman Josh Rales and former Baltimore County Executive Dennis Rasmussen, staged a protest outside of the Maryland Public Television broadcast studio where the debate was being telecast.
As the debate ended, Lichtman barricaded himself inside the MPT lobby and yelled repeatedly, "This is Democracy? Let the voters decide." He and his wife were arrested for criminal trespass by the Baltimore County police. Lichtman declined an offer by Rales to post his bail.