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The meeting was billed as a roundtable discussion with politicians and law enforcement officials. It was a small table.

The main players were: U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin, Queen Anne's County State's Attorney Frank M. Kratovil Jr., who is running for congress in the in Maryland's Eastern Shore-based 1st District, the head of the Baltimore County police union and two state police union officials. The audience consisted of aides, two repoters and a television cameraman.

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Held in the county police's FOP Lodge 4 headquarters on Harford Road in Parkville, the meeting was really a campaign stop for Kratovil, a Democrat who is locked in a fierce campaign with his Republican challenger, state Sen. Andy Harris, an anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins. It was high on rhetoric, low on specifics.

This was a hike for Kratovil, whose district is mainly east of the Chesapeake Bay but contains a sliver of land on the western shore up through Baltimore and Harford counties. The Baltimore County FOP isn't even weighing in on this race; they're backing C.A. Ruppersberger in the Second District, which covers more of the county, letting unions from the shore decide whom to back in the first district.

Kratovil talked mostly about wanting to restore funding to local police programs that he said has been cut or curtailed by the Bush administration. He singled out the COPS program that the Baltimore Police Department once endorsed. That program paid college tuition for men and women to join police departments  for four years.

Kratovil said that in these suddenly difficult economic times, which can bring an increase in crime, it's important that the federal government support local law enforcement. "If we don't do that, we're going to be back to where were in the 1980s," he said, referring to a period of high crime across the country.

Added Cardin: "You can't say you support cops on the beat and then cut their programs."

Cole B. Weston, the president of Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4, said police are at a turning point in driving down crime. "We can't lose so much ground that we give up the foothold we now have," he said. "It could take us a decade to get back out of it."

Harris' campaign manager, Chris Meekins, said his candidate also enjoys the support of law enforcement, and said any idea that he would cut money that helps local police departments is "a ridiculous claim from a desperate campaign."

And in a campaign that already includes hard-hitting ads, Meekins hinted at more to come: "I think the voters will have a clear understanding of Mr. Kratovil's real record as prosecutor before this campaign is over."

We only have a week left.

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