- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2006

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin debated yesterday on national television about the Iraq war, the Republican Party and stem-cell research, but the decisive role that black voters will play in Maryland’s U.S. Senate race was not mentioned.

“I would have liked to spent a little more time on … an attitude in this campaign, where race has come into play,” Mr. Steele, a Republican, said after appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” the country’s top-ranked Sunday morning political show.

Mr. Steele, who in 2002 became the first black person elected to a statewide office in Maryland, must win over black Democratic voters to overcome the Democrats’ 2-to-1 advantage in registered voters. That’s possible, say the state’s black leaders, because Democrats have taken their vote for granted.

“Meet the Press” host Tim Russert asked pointed, detailed questions about plans for U.S. troops in Iraq, stem-cell research, abortion, judicial nominees and whether Mr. Steele was a “proud Bush Republican.”

But Mr. Russert did not ask about the prospect of black Democrats, who make up about 40 percent of the state party, crossing party lines to vote for Mr. Steele.

“I don’t do horse-race questions,” Mr. Russert told The Washington Times. “Black voters have the same concerns as white voters, when it comes to the war in Iraq, stem-cell research, abortion, Supreme Court.”

Mr. Russert also said it was important to know “whether this was a referendum on George W. Bush, and whether Michael Steele was running away from him.”

He asked Mr. Steele about “Steele Democrat” bumper stickers and whether he was “running away” from President Bush.

Mr. Steele, 48, said he was not running away from the president.

“That’s exactly what Ben Cardin wants this race to be about,” he said. “When this race is about Democrats and Republicans … all they have to say is, ‘The bogeyman is Republican.’ ”

Mr. Cardin’s two-pronged campaign strategy has been to portray Mr. Steele as an ally of President Bush and to run on his record as a 10-term congressman to prove he knows how to “get things done” in Congress.

A Democratic memo last spring advised Maryland Democrats to “knock Steele down” by tying him to President Bush, turning Mr. Steele “into a typical Republican in the eyes of voters, as opposed to an African-American candidate.”

Mr. Cardin’s primary win over Kweisi Mfume, former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was by a small margin because Mr. Mfume overwhelmingly won in Prince George’s County and Baltimore city, where black Democrats make up most of the electorate.

The televised debate was a more favorable setting for Mr. Cardin, 63, than a debate Wednesday in which Green Party candidate Kevin B. Zeese, 51, and a free-for-all atmosphere put Mr. Cardin on the defensive.

Mr. Cardin declined to appear at a debate Thursday with Mr. Steele and Mr. Zeese before the Charles County NAACP, citing previously scheduled events.

Mr. Steele and Mr. Cardin may debate one more time this Friday before the Collective Banking Group, a group of black pastors in Prince George’s County.

Some Democrats thought Mr. Steele received favorable treatment from Mr. Russert.

“Russert treated you very unfairly,” Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski told Mr. Cardin before a rally in Montgomery County. “He let Steele go on these monologues and he cut you off too many times, but you held your own.”

On Iraq, Mr. Russert asked Mr. Steele whether he had a firm position, pointing out statements he has made that have contradicted one another.

Mr. Steele said the U.S. government should pressure the Iraqi government to take responsibility for its country. If that does not work, he said, then in 60 to 90 days, the U.S. should “evaluate whether it is … worth sacrificing another American life for a cause that the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people do not themselves believe in.”

Pulling U.S. troops out “would be on the table, absolutely,” Mr. Steele said.

Mr. Russert pressed Mr. Cardin on a comment he made in the Baltimore Sun this month that he would be open to cutting off funding for U.S. troops.

Mr. Cardin said he would “never support turning our backs on our troops.”

Mr. Cardin also said the war in Iraq is a civil war and “not a war on terror.” He denied ever calling for a timetable to withdraw troops, though he has said “it is reasonable” to expect all U.S. troops to be out by the end of 2007.

Mr. Steele said the war “has been worth it to the extent that what we’re trying to establish there is a beachhead of democracy.” He also said that he would have voted to invade Iraq, even knowing all he does now.

Mr. Cardin reiterated his support for embryonic stem-cell research, while Mr. Steele again said he supports all types of stem-cell research except for embryonic.

Mr. Cardin said he has “supported” anti-cloning legislation. However, Douglas Johnson, legislative director of National Right to Life, said Mr. Cardin has twice voted against bills that would have banned cloning, in 2001 and 2003.

Mr. Russert asked Mr. Steele whether he would vote for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, and Mr. Steele said he would not.

A Washington Post poll released yesterday showed Mr. Cardin leading Mr. Steele by 11 points. However, two polls in the last week have shown the race to be a dead heat, and the Cook Political Report on Friday switched the race from a likely Democratic retention to a tossup.

Mr. Cardin and Mr. Steele are vying to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat.

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