By CHRISTOPHER WEAVER
BALTIMORE (Sept. 16, 2008)—The views of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama clashed Monday night, but their voices were nowhere to be heard.
Former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich called McCain "a congressional earmark's worst nightmare," while Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Baltimore, said Obama would "bring our troops home from Iraq" at a presidential debate where the two men stood in for the absent candidates.
Maryland voters are likely to choose the Democrat in November, as they have in the last four elections. That means surrogates speak for the contenders here, while the campaigns deploy their most valuable resources in electoral battlegrounds like Virginia and Pennsylvania, campaign spokesmen and party officials said.
Far from those trenches, the mood at Chizuk Amuno, a synagogue in northwest Baltimore, was congenial Monday. When Cardin forcefully argued that McCain's proposal "will provide affordable health care to every family," members of the 1,000-person audience chimed in to correct him.
Ehrlich adjusted his microphone and a gentle applause rippled through the crowd as he continued - more audibly - to describe McCain's real position on the topic.
And when a moderator asked if Ehrlich was upset by the disproportionate applause drawn by Cardin's enthusiastic Obama impersonation, he joked, "I'm a Republican in Maryland, so I'm used to it."
The audience drilled the stand-ins with tough questions posed by members of this politically active, largely Jewish community. Their queries ranged from the candidates' commitment to Israel's security to economic issues, which gathered gravity by news that morning that Wall Street giant Lehman Bros. had declared bankruptcy, and brokerage firm Merrill Lynch had been acquired by another bank.
Cardin and Ehrlich proved that surrogates with the right expertise, personal knowledge of the candidate, or even their audience, can give valuable assurance to voters.
"For the most part (questions) were answered, at least in terms of what the candidates believe" said Arthur Abramson, the executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, a political advocacy group that organized the debate and chose the surrogates. "There are questions, obviously, regarding the views of respective candidates."
Undecided voters in Maryland may struggle to pry beyond boilerplate policies without seeing the candidates themselves, but surrogates qualified to speak directly to the issue most important to a specific audience can do the job, too.
"Someone who's really strong on that issue could sway you," said Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington.
"Let's imagine you're a Democrat-leaning American Jew who's really worried about the security of Israel," said Wilcox. "For example, Obama's had this really close-knit set of foreign policy advisers throughout this campaign. Say one of those guys showed up."
After expertise, familiarity is another top tactic in surrogate selection. Cardin's wife, Myrna Edelman Cardin, is a past president of the Baltimore Jewish Council, and Ehrlich has worked with local Jewish leaders since taking his first trip to Israel as a congressman in the '90s.
Michael Buckley, a spokesman for Maryland for Obama, said he believes surrogates are most effective when they have strong ties to the community they are addressing.
"I think a lot of human nature is hearing something from multiple voices, and sometimes hearing from someone who is more similar to you either geographically or demographically," he said.
The surrogate's job can be difficult, even when rapport is strong. "It's much easier to give your own views," said Ehrlich in a phone interview. "You don't want to get the campaign out on a limb inadvertently," he added.
For example, Charles Black, a McCain adviser, created controversy for the campaign in June, saying a terrorist attack would help McCain's bid.
Effective surrogates, said Ehrlich, accurately convey their candidate's positions and lobby for the crossover votes.
"Sway the swayable," he said.
Maryland party officials said they do not expect public visits from any of the four major-party candidates. Yet Marylanders will see more television advertising and active campaigning than in recent elections, they said, because nearby Pennsylvania and Virginia are both considered battleground states this year.
"The real battle is for media attention.(McCain) gets good coverage in Maryland by appearing in Virginia," said Justin Ready, the press secretary for the Maryland Republican Party.
That exposure may give Maryland voters generic information about the candidates, but it won't speak to their specific concerns. Surrogates can't always do the job, either.
For instance, Cardin offered prolific assurances about Obama's solid credentials on Middle Eastern and Israeli security Monday night, saying Obama "understands the relationship (between the U.S. and Israel) that started with President Truman in 1948." But some at the debate left unconvinced that his words accurately represented the candidate.
"I haven't heard him say one word about Israel," said Celeste Kurland, a Pikesville Republican who supports McCain for his perceived toughness on security, both at home and abroad. "I don't think he has a platform on it."
Obama did very publicly discuss Israel at a June meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, saying the country's capital should remain in an undivided Jerusalem.
"Any agreement with the Palestinian people must preserve Israel's identity as a Jewish state, with secure, recognized and defensible borders," Obama said at the time.
The crowd in Pikesville was largely partisan, and many wore stickers and pins advertising their support for a candidate. But the high turnout for the event suggests that many more people - even if they have chosen a candidate - would like to know more before casting their votes, said Abramson, who organized the event.
"It was an interesting exchange of ideas," said Cindy Pinsky, of Pikesville, a self-identified Democrat wearing a 'John McCain '08' button. But she added, "I don't think it will change anyone's mind."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.