- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

BALTIMORE — Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin yesterday criticized his Republican rival Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele for ducking debates in the U.S. Senate race in Maryland.

But Mr. Steele and his campaign said Mr. Cardin is “playing games,” and that his campaign manager won’t return phone calls to set up a debate.

Yesterday morning, Mr. Cardin stood next to a table with two name cards on it, placed there by his staff, as he spoke to about 30 seniors at a retirement community in Catonsville. One card bore Mr. Cardin’s name. The other Mr. Steele’s.

“Where is Michael Steele? I wish he was here,” Mr. Cardin, a Democrat, told his audience, which included some of the 2,000 residents at the Charlestown Retirement Community who watched on closed-circuit television.

Steele spokesman Doug Heye said that Ken Morley, Mr. Cardin’s campaign manager, refuses to return a call from Mr. Steele’s campaign manager, Michael Leavitt.

“We would like to have debates and start scheduling them. Unfortunately, Ben Cardin continues to play games,” said Mr. Heye.

Mr. Cardin called that “an excuse.”

The Cardin campaign has issued public challenges to Mr. Steele, the first black person elected to statewide office in Maryland, to debate Mr. Cardin at one of the 10-term congressman’s previously scheduled campaign stops.

“The voters should have an opportunity to hear us in an unrehearsed, live setting, where voters can ask you questions, and you have to respond to those questions,” Mr. Cardin said in an interview in Catonsville.

Mr. Cardin this week called for two debates a week until Election Day, which is Nov. 7.

So far, the two candidates are expected to meet Oct. 29 for a debate on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Mr. Leavitt called Mr. Morley about specifics for more debates, but Mr. Morley refused to respond, Mr. Heye said.

In a letter to Mr. Leavitt, Mr. Morley said, “With less than 50 days until the election, there is no time for a drawn out discussion process. Let’s debate.”

The letter, which was sent via e-mail at 4:16 p.m. Wednesday, challenged Mr. Steele to meet Mr. Cardin at the retirement community at 9 a.m. yesterday.

“If we wanted to do that too we could schedule a debate for when the House of Representatives has votes. But we’re not doing that,” Mr. Heye said.

Mr. Cardin said that his campaign has “been in constant contact with [the Steele campaign] to do whatever is reasonable in a debate forum.”

But Mr. Cardin’s spokesman, Oren Shur, refused to say whether campaign manager Mr. Morley had received a call from Mr. Leavitt or whether he had returned a call.

Mr. Shur said he is the contact person for scheduling debates and that he called the Steele campaign yesterday. Late in the day, Mr. Heye returned the call and invited the Cardin campaign to attend a meeting today, which he said would be attended by Steele staffers and representatives for Kevin Zeese, the Green Party candidate.

Mr. Shur would not say whether Cardin representatives plan to attend the meeting.

Mr. Heye said the Cardin campaign’s actions were simply trying to distract voters.

“They are doing whatever they can to distract from the fact that their campaign is clearly stumbling from their internal scandal, and from the fact that after outspending [Kweisi] Mfume 10-to-1, they limped to the nomination,” he said.

Mr. Heye was referring to Mr. Cardin’s victory last week in the Democratic primary, in which Mr. Cardin defeated Mr. Mfume, the former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Mr. Cardin spent $2.9 million on television ads to Mr. Mfume’s $300,000 but defeated Mr. Mfume by less than 3 percent.

The “scandal” to which Mr. Heye was referring was an online Web log written by a Cardin staffer that included racist and anti-Semitic comments.

The staffer, whom Mr. Cardin has refused to identify, was fired after The Washington Times first reported on the blog Sept. 15.

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