By Emily Haile and Leticia Linn
OWINGS MILLS – Arrests outside a Democratic debate in the U.S. Senate race Thursday evening called attention to candidates excluded from the event, but ultimately the race has come down to just two top candidates, analysts said.
With 12 days before the primary, Rep. Ben Cardin and former Rep. Kweisi Mfume tried to highlight their differences and preview their chances of beating the likely Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, on Maryland Public Television sponsored by the Maryland League of Women Voters.
A total of 29 candidates, 18 of them Democrats, are vying to replace Maryland’s longest serving U.S. senator, Paul Sarbanes, when his fifth term ends in January.
The league chose to invite only those candidates who showed in polls they had the support of 15 percent of the electorate, meaning that even some well-funded rivals were shut out.
One of them was American University history professor Allan Lichtman, who was arrested as he refused to abandon his attempt to get inside the debate.
Lichtman called attention to his candidacy and that of others excluded from the debate, said Ron Walters, professor of political science at University of Maryland, College Park, but it won’t matter. The debate itself helped to spotlight the two candidates with the best chances of winning, he said.
Undecided voters, who are the target in the final stages of the campaign, may have been awakened to the fact that they must decide in less than two weeks, Walters said.
Patrick Gonzales of Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies, agreed that the debate underscored the frontrunners. His recent statewide poll shows the election is likely to be between Cardin and Mfume, but anything can happen in an election, he cautioned.
“There is an old saying in politics,” Gonzales said. “A week is a lifetime.”
During the event, the candidates discussed the Iraq war, health care reform, energy independence and campaign finance reform, criticizing the Bush administration repeatedly.
Mfume pointed out his differences with Cardin, emphasizing that he does not accept campaign donations from corporations.
Cardin avoided attacking Mfume during the debate and asked voters to judge him on his record.
Attacking Mfume, Walters said, could have created a problem for Cardin by alienating black voters, Walters said.
The state party chairman, meanwhile, extolled the candidates’ debate decorum.
“This is a model campaign among Democrats,” said Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman. “People I’ve talked to think the debate raised the bar for everybody. It’s a terrific demonstration of what two qualified candidates can and should do in a debate and that’s talk about issues in a very reasoned way.”
Yet the campaign didn’t look composed when Lichtman, his wife, Karyn Strickler, and campaign volunteer Gail Dobson were arrested around 6:30 p.m. and charged with one count of criminal trespass. They refused to leave the outer lobby of Maryland Public Television in Owings Mills and shouted their defiance of repeated orders to move.
They face a maximum six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, said Baltimore County Police spokesman Bill Toohey. They are scheduled to appear in court Oct. 16.
Police told Lichtman that the charges are likely to be dropped, said Lichtman spokeswoman Lindsay Miracle.
“The arrest means how far Allan and his principles are willing to go for Maryland voters,” Miracle said.
As the arrests occurred, Democratic candidate Joshua Rales, a Montgomery County businessman, stood across the street with supporters. He said he was dismayed at Mfume and Cardin’s lack of party solidarity.
“They don’t stand up for fellow Democrats,” Rales said. “This is what’s wrong with the party. There is a stain on their hands today.”
The president of the League of Women Voters defended the group’s decision to invite only Mfume and Cardin to participate.
“I understand the frustration of the candidates,” said Lu Pierson. Logistically, it would be difficult to have 18 candidates debate, she said. “We adopted our criteria way before we knew who the candidates would be or how many there would be.” As for Lichtman, “It appears he may have overreacted,” said Pierson.
Since his arrest, Lichtman has called for Pierson’s resignation, as well as officers of the television and radio stations airing the debate.
The league may consider Rales’ suggestion of using Federal Election Commission guidelines to screen candidates, which, among other rules, require that candidates raise or spend at least $5,000.
“We adopt criteria before every election,” Pierson said.
After the debate, Mfume and Cardin declined to question the League or the station’s decision.
“I hope the story tonight will be about the issues we talked about,” Cardin said.
While Mfume identified personally with Rales’ statement. “I know exactly what he meant,” he said. “Nobody stood up for me when I first got in this race.”
Lierman described a unified Democratic Party.
“All of the Democratic Senate candidates are totally unified in one thing and that’s keeping the Senate Democratic. We all know that a vote for Steele is a vote for Bush.”
Maryland Public Television doubled its typical ratings during Thursday’s debate and out-performed its main competitor, WETA.
“We were very pleased how the debate went,” said Steven Schupak, vice president of television programs. “It was nice to have (the candidates) do a bit of contrasting.”
Schupak praised the Baltimore County Police for keeping the building secure. Maryland Public Television is owned by the state, “but that doesn’t mean that we can have unlawful entry into the building,” Schupak said. “These were uninvited guests.”
The League of Women Voters is sponsoring a forum open to all 29 candidates for the Senate primary on Sept. 5 at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Maryland Public Television plans to send a camera, Schupak said. Thirteen candidates have accepted the invitation, including Mfume, Lichtman and Rales.
– 30 – CNS-9-1-06