Most of the GOP candidates running in the April 3 primary to unseat Bartlett and take on the Democratic nominee in November used the debate to offer criticism of their fellow Republican's 10-term career in the House of Representatives, even though their positions on most of the issues did not diverge from his significantly.
Democratic and Republican candidates engaged in their most high-profile exchange of ideas to date Sunday in a pair of debates sponsored by the state AARP chapter and MarylandReporter.com. Both forums at the Montgomery College campus in Germantown were sparsely attended but were to appear on Montgomery County's public access television.
"What is he going to accomplish over the next two years that he has not been able to in 20?" asked Brandon Rippeon, a Darnestown businessman and GOP candidate in the 6th District. "Congressman Bartlett has had half of my lifetime to address and fix and correct the issues that we've talked about here today."
Bartlett, who has raised more campaign cash than the other seven Republicans combined, responded that he was proud of his record in Washington. Though he did not address the criticism from other candidates directly, he noted that lawmakers were often forced to vote on bills that had a broad mix of policies — some they support and others they do not.
"The bills that come before Congress are generally huge bills," Bartlett said. "Every time I vote 'no' on a bill, I'm unhappy that there are frequently some good things in there I would have liked to have voted 'yes' on."
Two other candidates in the GOP race, Del. Kathy Afzali of Middletown and state Sen. David R. Brinkley of New Market, raised questions about Bartlett's tenure but also engaged in a tit-for-tat over their records in Annapolis. They have both been forced to spend significant time there as the campaign has unfolded during the state's legislative session.
Lawyer and perennial candidate Robin Ficker attacked Brinkley and Afzali for living outside the district.
"If you're not careful," he warned, "you're going to end up with one of these Democrats."
Democrats had a less feisty exchange, agreeing on a range of questions from how to deal with Afghanistan and Iran to how to shore up Social Security and Medicare.
Jefferson physician Milad Pooran, who has tried to position himself to the left of the other Democrats in the race, criticized Potomac businessman John Delaney for supporting a bipartisan plan drafted in 2010 to reduce budget deficits. Delaney, who has said that he supported the broad outlines of the plan, responded by saying that candidates who promise no spending cuts aren't being realistic about rising deficits.
"I think the level of unemployment in this country is tragic, and I think the trends are even more concerning," Delaney said. "We've seen this coming, and we know exactly what we need to do to turn them around, and we're not doing it."
Early voting in Maryland began Saturday and runs through Thursday. State Sen. Rob Garagiola used the opportunity to cast his ballot Sunday. Candidates typically vote on Election Day, but Garagiola's campaign has been eager to draw attention to the fact that Delaney cannot vote for himself because he lives about a block outside the district.
"I'm very frustrated by what's going on in this Congress," Garagiola said during the debate. "This Congress has been very unresponsive as far as focusing on growing our economy."
The 6th District is likely to be the most competitive race in Maryland this year — in both the primary and the general election in November — because of the way the district was redrawn as part of the once-in-a-decade redistricting process last year.