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The debate nobody watched


IMAGINE a race for the U.S. Senate in which the average citizen probably can't identify a single issue separating the candidates. That pretty well describes the little-talked-about tussle between Barbara Mikulski and Alan Keyes.

Marylanders had their chance. During the Senate campaign's sole televised debate Monday night, the candidates' differences were more than evident, as was Mr. Keyes' superior oratorical skill. Alas, the Keyes-Mikulski debate followed the third and final presidential debate on Maryland Public Television, and precious few Marylanders stayed tuned.

Flashing a glowing smile and demonstrating enough energy to light a TV studio, Mr. Keyes spelled out his sharp disagreements with Senator Mikulski, and he hammered away, thematically, at a single perceived vulnerability -- "all talk, inconsistent action."

Again and again, Mr. Keyes linked society's major ills to Ms. Mikulski's 16 years in the Congress. He dubbed her "a pork-barrel general," claiming her extensive cooperation with fellow Democratic senators like Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts has contributed little to national defense but much to bringing political pork to the four states.

Mr. Keyes showed agility when questioned on his difficulties with the national Republican hierarchy. No, he said, his having been cut off from national GOP campaign funds because of his low standing in the polls won't prevent a choice committee assignment if he is elected. Indeed, he said his conflicts with fellow Republicans showed he wasn't a party patsy, but would be an independent vote in the Senate. Later, he said, shamelessly and rightly, that he articulates Republican principles and a positive GOP agenda far better than does President Bush.

Perhaps the best discussion topic of the evening -- a topic on which Ms. Mikulski seems most comfortable -- was welfare reform. Ms. Mikulski prescribes job training and extended Medicaid benefits as ways to put welfare recipients into paying jobs. She observed correctly that reform is impossible without jobs for the former welfare recipients. Mr. Keyes said, yes, support people as they leave the welfare rolls, but do more than that: Require welfare recipients to work and to submit to drug tests.

Both candidates competed for the favor of Ms. Mikulsi's core supporters -- Maryland blacks. To Mr. Keyes' charge that she takes black support for granted, Ms. Mikulski retorted that she had fought for additional research funding for black colleges and universities in Maryland. Mr. Keyes promised more Small Business Administration funding for blacks and attention to specific urban problems.

The candidates diverged sharply on the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement, which eliminates many of the trade barriers among the United States, Mexico and Canada. Ms. Mikulski expressed great reservations, urged tighter enforcement of anti-dumping laws against foreign companies and said telephone companies should again be allowed to manufacture telephone equipment. Mr. Keyes was a bit vague, talking once again of over-taxation and over- regulation, but saying it was important to open Mexican and Canadian markets.

If we're to believe the candidates, their race pits one independent against another. In fact, Maryland's 1992 senatorial clash offers a basic choice: a very articulate conservative who sometimes sees government as the problem against a feisty liberal/pragmatist who regards government as the prime agent of change.

Bruce L. Bortz is editor of the Maryland Report newsletter, as well as political analyst for Channel 45.

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