WYE MILLS – In a dimly lit theater at Chesapeake College last night, the two candidates for the 1st Congressional District seat debated a myriad of issues, but the war in Iraq underscored most of the exchange, and some voters expressed growing doubts about voting for the eight-term Republican incumbent they’ve backed in past elections.
The event, hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Midshore, brought Rep. Wayne Gilchrest and Democratic challenger Jim Corwin together for their first and only debate, which aired on local access television.
The candidates spent nearly an hour fielding questions from about 150 people on health care, the energy crisis and border security, but both candidates primarily focused on the crisis in Iraq.
In his opening statements, Gilchrest said Iraq is the key issue facing the district, the state of Maryland and the country.
Since his vote in 2003 to authorize the invasion of Iraq, Gilchrest has joined many other members of Congress in speaking out against the conduct of the war. He co-sponsored a bill in 2005 that called on the administration to set a timeline to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.
“We cannot defeat an insurgency with bullets and intelligence,” he said, stressing the need to engage in a dialogue. “You cannot resolve the conflict in Iraq unless you get the international community involved.”
On Monday, the death toll in Iraq climbed to 100, making October the deadliest month since January 2005 when 107 U.S. troops were killed.
“Let’s not forget why we’re at war with Iraq,” Corwin said, placing blame on Gilchrest and other members of Congress who voted to authorize the war. “I would never have done that,” he said.
“We need a sensible plan for withdrawing our troops,” he later said.
The candidates weren’t the only ones thinking about Iraq.
“The war is on my mind always,” said Betty Kerr, 75, who lives in Chestertown. “Every day it gets worse.”
She has supported Gilchrest in the past, she said, and this is the first time that she’s on the fence. “Mr. Gilchrest is good. I like him . . . but I want to hear what Jim has to say.”
Peter Conti, a real estate developer from Annapolis, said Iraq will be one of the main issues he’ll focus on when he heads to the polls. “I think it was a mistake and that we shouldn’t be there,” said Conti, 46, a registered Republican who has voted for Bush in the past.
Though Corwin’s outrage with a Congress “mired by secrecy and corruption” has resounded with many voters, lack of funding is making it difficult for him to reach voters in a district that spans the Eastern Shore and parts of Harford, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.
Corwin has $7,196 cash on hand compared to Gilchrest, who has $321,584, according to the latest FEC reports.
The disparity in funding obviously has an impact, said Terry Lierman, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, but “I think at this point it’s all about get out the vote and people knowing the issues.”
“The question is do the voters understand that a vote for Gilchrest is a vote for Bush and keeping the Congress Republican,” Lierman said.
Gilchrest has enjoyed bipartisan support thanks largely to his moderate stance on key issues like the environment in a diverse district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by fewer than 3,000 registered voters.
During the debate, the candidates did agree on some issues, like the need to re-evaluate the No Child Left Behind Act and to engage in bilateral negotiations with North Korea.
But Corwin didn’t hesitate to go on the offense, attacking Gilchrest for working too closely with the administration. “At least 85 percent of the time he’s been in lockstep with the president and the Republican-controlled Congress. We need a Congress that will stand up to the president,” Corwin said.
Richard Altman, 67, is torn between Gilchrest and Corwin and attended the debate in hopes that it would help him choose the best candidate.
“I like Gilchrest because, at least locally, he’s been a pretty sincere environmentalist,” said Altman, who’s lived in the Gilchrest’s district for 17 years.
In the past he’s been “very satisfied” with the congressman, he said, but his displeasure with Bush, who he called “the worst president we’ve ever had,” coupled with his dismay over the national Republican policies has given him a moment’s pause. “If it weren’t for Gilchrest’s position on local environmental issues, I’d be voting Democratic.”