By LETICIA LINN, Capital News Service
ARLINGTON, Va. - It looked like something from "The McLaughlin Group"—loud voices, interruptions, strong opinions—but it was the latest debate among the three Maryland U.S. Senate candidates in an increasingly hot contest.
Democrat U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin, Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and triparty-candidate Kevin Zeese put politeness at a premium in their debate Wednesday afternoon aired on Newschannel 8.
They butted in, spoke over each other and raised their voices to make their points on Maryland transportation, the Iraq war and embryonic stem cell research, sometimes with a hint of nastiness.
By the middle of the debate, Cardin got Steele to admit that he would have approved launching the war in Iraq. But he stumbled when Steele asked him to name the route for Metro's planned Purple Line and detail his transportation plan for Maryland.
The candidates quickly scrapped the rules laid out by moderator Bruce DePuyt. At certain moments it was almost impossible to hear what the three candidates were saying.
Almost at the end of the debate, DePuyt asked Cardin if he knew about the transportation plans for Maryland, which includes the construction of the Purple Line between Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
As Cardin was answering that he was aware of those plans, Steele jumped in asking him where the Purple Line route was. Cardin started to answer, then stopped himself and said: "I'm not going to answer your question!"
Steele took the opening as an opportunity.
"This gentleman has no clue about Metro, traffic congestion in this area," said Steele.
Cardin shot back that Steele should "tell me what the strategy is in the war in Iraq" and defended himself saying he knew the Metro system around Washington, D.C., and the Purple Line route.
Reporters pressed Cardin after the debate to demonstrate his knowledge of the Purple Line, but he declined.
During the debate, Steele said Cardin was silent until he decided to run for senator.
"For 20 years, sir, you have been sitting, wasting your opportunity to lead," he said, and added that if he wins he would walk the state and talk to people.
Zeese tried hard to break through the discussion between Cardin and Steele, and he questioned Cardin for saying he voted against the war in Iraq, while later supporting amendments to the Patriot Act, which dealt with terrorist suspects' punishment.
Steele continued that argument, asking Cardin what was his plan for bringing American troops home.
Cardin responded with his own question—whether Steele thought the United States should have gone into Iraq in the first place.
"Yes, we should have gone," said Steele, to fight terrorism.
A bit later, Cardin tried to make a point saying Steele is the one who would have voted to go into Iraq.
"Please do not disrespect me and tell me what would I have done at the time," Steele shot back.
Stem cell research—a controversial topic made hotter by a Cardin commercial this week featuring actor Michael J. Fox clearly exhibiting symptoms of Parkinson's Disease—also figured in the debate.
Steele said funding for adult stem cell research should be increased and accelerated, yet he said he drew the line at embryonic stem cell research.
"I do not support a measure that would destroy that embryo because I respect the life that that embryo represents and is," he said.
Cardin said embryonic stem cell research holds "tremendous promise" for people with certain diseases, including Parkinson's, and said that was a fundamental disagreement with Steele.
By failing to support such research, Cardin said, "we are denying hope to millions of Americans."
Zeese supported all stem cell research, but questioned if all the money would be going to "corporate welfare" companies.
All three candidates criticized radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh for saying Fox exaggerated his Parkinson's disease in the Cardin ad.
"It was a little too over the limit," said Steele.
President Bush, too, became an issue, as he has been throughout the campaign and the country, as his poll numbers have declined and the Iraq war becomes more unpopular.
"The lieutenant governor was recruited by George Bush; George Bush helped finance his campaign for the US Senate," Cardin said, adding that Steele agreed with every Bush policy. "That is not the kind of change we need in Washington."
Steele replied that Cardin is running against Bush, instead of him.
"You talk about handpicking? You were handpicked by Congressman Steny Hoyer to be in this race. If you weren't, Kweisi Mfume should be sitting here," he said.
Cardin beat Mfume, a former congressman and ex-head of the NAACP, in the Democratic primary. The loss of a leading black candidate, and the resulting dearth of color on the Democratic statewide ticket, has become a significant issue in the race and in efforts to turn out black voters.
"You brought Bush into Maryland to raise $1 million for you", answered Cardin, while Steele asked him to run against his record as a lieutenant governor.
Zeese criticized both candidates' fundraising, and both defended their war chests.
"I am working on a system that the congressman voted for and designed," Steele said. "I am working within a system that limits my ability to actually get the money that I need."