Thursday, October 26, 2006

3:53 p.m.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin this afternoon declined to participate in an NAACP-sponsored debate with the other two candidates for U.S. Senate tonight in Charles County, Md.

“I just spoke with Mr. Cardin about an hour ago, and he said he had three other engagements,” said the Rev. Willie Hunt, pastor of New Community Church of God in Christ in Waldorf.

Mr. Cardin’s forgoing of tonight’s debate comes one day after the 10-term congressman stammered and stumbled through a debate with Republican nominee Michael S. Steele and Green Party nominee Kevin Zeese.

Mr. Hunt and the Rev. William Braxton, president of the Charles County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Mr. Cardin, the Democratic nominee, had not officially confirmed that he would attend.

“We were actually in talks with [Cardin spokesman] Oren Shur, and we were under the impression that this thing was going to work out and [Mr. Cardin] was going to be here,” Mr. Braxton said. “Initially when we talked, he said they had some scheduling problems they had to work out, and his final comment was that they could not work them out.”

Mr. Shur said in an e-mail that Mr. Cardin “never confirmed his attendance.”

“He’s campaigning at community events in Prince George’s County tonight and has accepted an invitation to debate at the statewide NAACP conference on Saturday. We expect to see Michael Steele there,” Mr. Shur said.

Mr. Steele said he was “disappointed” that Mr. Cardin would not be attending the debate.

“I don’t know why,” said Mr. Steele, the lieutenant governor. “Both our teams negotiated with the pastor and the NAACP.”

Steele spokesman Doug Heye said the Cardin campaign “is rattled and has gone back on their word that they have publicly given throughout their campaign.”

“There are numerous quotes from Ben Cardin and his campaign saying they will be at a debate anytime, anywhere,” Mr. Heye said. “This was publicly announced. It was publicly reported. They never asked for it to be corrected.”

Tonight’s debate was to have been the second of three between Mr. Cardin and Mr. Steele that will culminate Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

In yesterday’s televised debate at NewsChannel 8 studios in Rosslyn, Mr. Cardin was on the defensive from attacks by Mr. Steele and Mr. Zeese and appeared unable to say where Metro is planning to begin and end the Purple Line.

Mr. Steele, who was born in Prince George’s County, used the issue to portray Mr. Cardin as out of touch with the Washington region. He called a press conference at a Metro station today to highlight the issue again.

During a luncheon at The Washington Times on Monday, Mr. Steele said he had requested that tonight’s debate be held in Charles County, where a group of white men burned more than two dozen homes owned mostly by black families.

The incident was the state’s biggest residential arson case and highlighted racial tensions in the county.

Mr. Hunt expressed disappointment that Charles County residents would not get to see the all Senate nominees in action.

“So many events have taken place in Prince George’s County and other parts of the region. This Southern Maryland area has not had the opportunity to witness this kind of debate,” he said.

Mr. Hunt said that Mr. Steele and Mr. Zeese would debate tonight at New Community Church.

Race has played prominent role in the Maryland Senate race, as Democrats have tried to blunt Mr. Steele’s appeal among blacks, their most loyal — and, some say, neglected — voting bloc.

Mr. Steele is the first black to win a statewide election in Maryland.

Mr. Cardin, who is white, has sought to shore up black support after defeating Kweisi Mfume, past national president of the NAACP, in September’s primary.

Although Mr. Cardin won the overall primary, Mr. Mfume bested him in two majority-black jurisdictions — Prince George’s County and Baltimore.

According to the State Board of Elections, Mr. Mfume won 74,637 votes and Mr. Cardin 19,824 in Prince George’s County. In Baltimore, Mr. Mfume won 52,335 votes and Mr. Cardin 25,051.

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