- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The first debate among Democratic candidates for Maryland’s U.S. Senate seat was marked by attacks on the front-runner about his stance on the war in Iraq and by questions about issues affecting black voters.

“I’m the one who can get things done in Washington,” said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a 10-term congressman from Baltimore, who has held a lead in most polls until the past month.

Mr. Cardin came under fire from two marginal candidates who likely will not figure prominently in the Sept. 12 primary, but whose criticisms did the dirty work for Mr. Cardin’s surging challenger, Kweisi Mfume.

Mr. Mfume, a former congressman and former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has pulled even in polls with Mr. Cardin, even though he has far less campaign money and has received little support from within his party.

“In 55 days, you the people of the state get a chance to make a decision, not the good old boys in backrooms who smoke cigars,” Mr. Mfume said. He was referring to his charge that House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer and other Democratic leaders have tried to “coronate” Mr. Cardin.

For the rest of the night, Mr. Mfume talked in mostly broad terms and used populist appeal.

Four other candidates participated in the debate, and two of them repeatedly criticized Mr. Cardin.

“Ben Cardin may have voted against the war two years ago but he voted to finance it when [President] Bush asked him for it, and I find that inexcusable and unforgivable,” said A. Robert Kaufman, a socialist renegade from Baltimore, who wore a safari shirt, khaki pants and Birkenstock sandals.

Allan Lichtman, a fiery history professor at American University, chimed in.

“Just last year … he voted against an amendment simply calling on the president to develop a plan to withdraw troops from Iraq,” Mr. Lichtman said.

Mr. Cardin defended his record, saying he has been “opposed to the war from the beginning” and has been “an outspoken critic of the president.”

Afterward, Mr. Cardin said he thought the criticisms were “part of the turf of being an incumbent.”

Also taking part were Josh Rales, a millionaire businessman from Bethesda, and Thomas McCaskill, a research physicist from Fort Washington.

Mr. Rales, a real estate investor, has spent $2 million this month on ads in the Washington, Baltimore and Eastern Shore TV markets.

Maryland Public Television had planned to televise the event live, debate organizers said, but ultimately decided to record and broadcast it later.

Juan Williams, a political analyst with National Public Radio and Fox News Channel, and Ron Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, questioned the candidates.

Mr. Williams and Mr. Walters, both black, asked a series of questions that focused on issues affecting black voters, such as economic development for minorities, voting rights for felons and protection of “African-American interests.”

Race has become a central issue in the race, with Republicans uniting behind Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the first black man elected to statewide office in Maryland.

Mr. Steele could attract a significant number of black voters, a large bloc in the state that traditionally votes Democratic.

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