BALTIMORE – For a week, debates were the center of the debate in the U.S. Senate race, but the first opportunity the candidates had to exchange arguments did little to influence voters’ minds, analysts said.
Republican Michael Steele, Democrat Ben Cardin and three-party independent Kevin Zeese tried hard to distinguish themselves on issues, including the Iraq war and the Rep. Mark Foley page scandal, and even in style, during Tuesday’s two-hour debate organized by the Greater Baltimore Urban League.
The three did what they were expected to do: Cardin went after Steele, Steele defended himself with a warm style, and Zeese tried to get into the game.
But none of that was enough to win over new supporters, said Ronald Walters, professor of political science of the University of Maryland, College Park, who called the discussion “inconsequential.”
“None of the candidates was able to open up a line of attack successfully on the other one,” he said. Steele did an adequate job defending himself, while Cardin was able to talk about the issues on which he and Steele disagree, Walters said.
“I think he (Cardin) came off as a better public person on the issues, and Steele came off in terms of his own personality as a more likeable person.”
But Walters said most people by now “have already made up their minds” on who they will support, and for most voters, he said, war in Iraq has become a major topic nationwide in the campaign.
However, Walters said he was surprised by the way the Foley scandal was played up. Foley, a Republican congressman from Florida, resigned Friday after sexually explicit e-mails he sent to a teenaged page became public.
For Zach Messite, assistant professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, this first debate might have had little impact on voters, but when it’s added to advertising and personal appearances, it could have a “cumulative effect over the next 40 days.”
The Baltimore Sun’s Sept. 25 poll, Messite said, was a powerful attention-getter for Steele, since he got 40 percent against Cardin’s 51 percent. Being down 11 points means that “the warm, fuzzy thing is over” and it’s time to “go on the offensive,” explained Messite. For that reason, he said, Steele tried to criticize Cardin for being “an old-time politician” who does not listen to people.
Messite agreed with Walters that the Iraq war is the main campaign issue, which was also a main topic in the debate.
After reiterating he voted against the war, Cardin called for a “systematic reduction” of U.S troops in Iraq, and said the international community should be engaged in helping to reorganize the country.
Zeese called for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, in a process no longer than four or six months: “Everything that we fear is more likely to happen by staying.”
In a soft voice, Steele tried to manage one of the hottest issues for him.
“It’s not going well; no, it’s not,” he admitted after moderator Charles Robinson, a journalist from Maryland Public Television, pressed him to answer. Still, he insisted that it was not the time “to step back” from Iraq. “We are there to finish the job,” he said.
Steele was also questioned about the Foley issue and the Republican authorities who knew about it.
“We need to investigate every member who touched this matter,” he said, even if it means a loss of job for Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Several prominent Democrats, as well as some social conservatives, have already called for Hastert’s resignation, with Cardin among them.
“The leadership of the House knew of this for 10 months,” Cardin said at the debate, “and you are talking about the safety of our children, so immediate action is needed there.”
As the crossfire between Cardin and Steele continued, Zeese, the candidate for the Green, Libertarian and Populist parties, asked people not to rely on the “status quo” parties. He said the major parties are dominated by special interest groups and corporations, and asked voters to forgo voting “based on fear and manipulation.”
Next time, the candidates should change strategies, Walters said.
Cardin, for example, should avoid attacking Steele.
“He is ahead in the polls, so why he should alienate voters by overly campaigning and attacking his opponent?” Walters said. “That is being out of character for him . . . Voters don’t like negative campaigns.”
On the other hand, Walters said, Steele “has to do some attacking” and try to bring Cardin’s positive ratings down. “I don’t think he can be Mr. Nice Guy and win this election.”