Not long after the start of last night's debate between 2nd District congressional candidates Helen Delich Bentley and Michael J. Hickey, moderator Jeff Salkin looked at the camera and said, "I'm starting to feel like Admiral Stockdale as a pingpong ball."
Like Ross Perot's vice presidential candidate, Mr. Salkin was caught between two contentious contenders and had trouble getting a word in edgewise during a half-hour donnybrook broadcast last night on Maryland Public Television.
Mrs. Bentley, the Republican incumbent, and Mr. Hickey, the Democratic challenger, hammered each other nearly from the start, destroying a format that was supposed to have each take turns answering a question from the League of Women Voters.
Mr. Hickey had just given his economic proposals -- which include extensive spending on the infrastructure, financed in part by defense cuts. Those cuts would include cancellation of six of the B-2 bombers currently under production for a savings of $12 billion.
"Let me ask you a question -- you know there are a number of people in this district employed because of the B-2," Mrs. Bentley said directly to her opponent. "What you just said is that they should be thrown out in the street tomorrow."
"No ma'am, I did not," Mr. Hickey replied. "The productions system would still go on for another year or two to finish up old orders."
"You said that they should be thrown out on the street," Mrs. Bentley interrupted.
"Take the same money now and convert it into a new commercial plane," Mr. Hickey continued. "Let them form a consortium so we can compete with the airbuses over in Europe. Let's not continue down a path and build a system that will never be used."
After a few more exchanges, Mrs. Bentley took over: "Let me say something. You know who's been running the Congress for the past 38 years? It's been the Democrats. And you know they've done a lousy job. They've come up with a speaker who had to resign, a whip who had to resign, a postmaster who had to resign, and the head of the bank who had to resign."
Mr. Hickey counterpunched: "And how about Helen Bentley spending too much time on the Serbian issue and getting $100,000 from the Serbs, violating House ethics rules in lobbying, being a founder and president of Serb-Net . . .
Mrs. Bentley: "I was . . ."
Mr. Hickey: "But you would not resign . . ."
Mrs. Bentley: "Not as honorary . . ."
It was somewhere in here that Mr. Salkin made his Admiral Stockdale comment.
Mrs. Bentley then took the floor and charged Mr. Hickey with using his Marine Corps affiliation in his political advertising. "That is illegal," she said.
"It is not illegal to say that I am currently in the United States Marine Corps Reserve," Mr. Hickey replied.
"Then I am not in any violation either," Mrs. Bentley said.
But Mr. Hickey went on to assert that Mrs. Bentley used her congressional stationery improperly to solicit attendance at a Serbian-American function, something that she had acknowledged previously.
So Mrs. Bentley charged again on the Marine Corps issue. And so on.
After the taping, Peter Holland, Mr. Hickey's campaign manager, said that he sent all of Mr. Hickey's campaign materials to the Marine Corps and was told that nothing was improper.
On other issues, Mr. Hickey laid out his proposal for a national health care system, financed in part by a national sales tax, while Mrs. Bentley backed the Bush administration health care proposal, including reform of the malpractice system.
Mrs. Bentley said that the deficit would be under control had Congress listened to her call for a budget freeze four years ago. But Mr. Hickey said that would lock in wasteful spending.