One night before President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney were to hold their first presidential debate, Howard County's congressional representatives and their challengers had the opportunity to face off.
The candidates for Maryland's District 3 and District 7, which include parts of Howard, took turns answering questions at the Howard County League of Women Voters forum, held Tuesday at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.
Congressional District 2 incumbent Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat, and Republican candidate state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, of Harford County, did not attend the forum. Leo Wayne Dymowski, the District 2 Libertarian candidate from Baltimore County, gave brief remarks.
At times, it was a lot like a presidential debate, with candidates taking jabs at one another and crafting responses to questions without really answering them. However, the forum was also more formally structured, with candidates receiving no time for rebuttal, as they would in a typical debate.
Most heated was the exchange between District 7 incumbent Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, and his challenger Frank Mirabile, a Woodbine Republican.
For example, when the candidates were asked a question about what they would do to help resolve the partisan divide that exists in Congress, Cummings said he has a reputation for working across the aisle and that he believes in Congress.
"A lot of people are concentrating on the next election instead of the next generation," he said. "I'm going to continue to work hard with my colleagues"
Mirabile, who ran against and lost to Cummings in 2010, said Cummings has almost a 100-percent party-line voting record.
"That's not a person that wants to reach across the divide and make things happen," he said.
"It seems as if there was more concern about the next election, trying to make sure that this president had no successes," he said.
But Mirabile said Cummings is wrongly blaming Republicans for the gridlock that currently exists in Congress.
"The Republicans aren't obstructionists," he said. "It's actually the Senate (Majority) Leader Harry Reid."
Answering a question about campaign finance reform, Cummings said it's unfortunate that federal law has allowed for millionaires and billionaires to pump millions of dollars into campaigns through Super PACs and allowed the donations to go undisclosed.
Mirabile countered, accusing Cummings of being a hypocrite in saying he opposes the heavy donors from basically buying elections.
"If you look at his donor lists, it's a laundry list of big donors, mostly from public unions and union groups," he said.
Mirabile said social networking and the Internet allow people with lesser means to counter the ads from large donors. The information, he said, is readily available to voters.
"We all have the ability to do research and our own fact finding missions ... (to) search out the truth," he said. "It's readily available online."
The one point on which Cummings and Mirabile did agree was the effects the looming sequestration — $1.2 trillion in mandatory cuts set to take place to the federal budget if Congress does not act to make its own cuts, as required by the legislation Congress passed last year to raise the debt ceiling — on Marylanders.
"It would be devastating," they both answered.
During the allotted time for closing statements, Mirabile publicly challenged Cummings to participate in debates with him.
Cummings did not answer the challenge during his closing, but asked about it after the forum, he said: "I'll make that decision later."
The exchange between the District 3 Congressional candidates was less heated
Towson Democrat John Sarbanes, the incumbent, was far from winning the support of his challengers, Republican Eric Knowles and Libertarian Paul Drogos, both of Anne Arundel County, but the three did have points on which they somewhat agreed.
For example, when the candidates were asked about what their top foreign policy initiative would be, they all seemed to agree the United States should limit its battles.
"We need to stop trying to be the policeman of the world," Knowles said." We can't afford it … these wars are very costly."
He added: "Congress should do its duty and declare war. ... If we change that one thing, Congress declares war, we will have a lot less conflict in this world."
Drogos agreed with Knowles, adding that he believes the United States should bring home its troops stationed around the world.
Sarbanes acknowledged that the candidates all had some agreement on the topic.
"We have to be careful that we don't overextend ourselves, and I think that's what we're all speaking to right now," he said. "We did get overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Sarbanes added that he would like to see the timetable to bring home the troops in Afghanistan accelerated.
The District 3 candidates also had some agreement on the question asked about what to do with the rising costs of entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare.
Knowles, answering first, called it "an unsustainable system." He said the United States needs to rein in its spending on entitlement programs — but not end them, as that would cause chaos.
Sarbanes, noting he prefers to call entitlement programs "earned benefit programs," said: "We have to keep those strong but we also have to make sure they can be sustained over the long term."
Drogos added: "I believe that we do have to pull in our entitlement system and we have to do it quickly."
The candidates also had their differences.
While Sarbanes believes the federal government has a role creating jobs, Drogos said he doesn't believe it should.
Said Knowles: "The government cannot create any wealth-producing jobs. ... It's really like diminishing returns because that money comes from somewhere, it comes from taxpayers."
Like the District 7 candidates, the District 3 candidates were asked about what they would do to help resolve the partisan divide that exists in Congress.
Sarbanes said campaign finance reform would help, as representatives now spend most of their time fundraising for costly campaigns.
"You don't have the time to develop those relationships with your colleagues ... the personal relationships that allow people to develop trust and to bridge the gap," he said.
Knowles said the $16 trillion of debt the country is facing should bring people the parties together.
"These are the things that are going to back us into a corner. … These are the things that I would have people work across the isle on," he said.
Drogos said the two-party system "has gotten to a point where there is no compromise."
As a third-party candidate, he said he believes he will be able to work with both sides of the isle.
"You should be able to vote your conscious and not have to vote party lines," Drogos said.