Against an election-year backdrop of attack ads, questions of character and even downright name calling, there is something unusual going on in Maryland's 3rd Congressional District: a frank discussion of the issues.
Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, running for a fourth House term, and GOP nominee William T. S. Bricker, a Towson attorney and former state Motor Vehicle Administrator, have spent their time in civilized debate, offering their competing political philosophies in an era of sound bites and innuendo.
"Ben even made a remark about that at our last debate, that there wasn't any negative campaign," said Mr. Bricker, 63, who ran unsuccessfully for a House of Delegates seat two years ago and is making his first -- and decidedly uphill -- bid for Congress. "We really differ on the issues."
Mr. Cardin, a former Maryland House speaker, says he deserves re-election because he has the experience and proposals to get the country on firm footing. He notes that he has helped pick up federal money to upgrade the MARC trains, repair Fort McHenry and undertake environmental studies of Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
But Mr. Bricker claims many of his opponent's views on health care, crime and the deficit amount to the "liberal agenda."
The two men have embarked on a sort of tutorial throughout the redrawn district, which takes in portions of Baltimore and Baltimore County and stretches into Howard and Anne Arundel counties.
Among the dominant questions in the campaign is how to make health care accessible to the estimated 35 million Americans without insurance.
Mr. Cardin, 49, a member of the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and its subcommittee that covers health care, has spent much of his time in Congress trying to draw attention to the country's health care crisis.
Earlier this year he helped craft a bill that calls for each employer to provide basic health insurance for all employees and their dependents. Those not connected to the work force would be covered under a new plan similar to Medicare.
No new taxes would be required to implement the plan, Mr. Cardin says, adding that the phased-in measure would offer tax breaks to small businesses and allow them to buy health insurance at the same rate as corporations.
The plan has largely been embraced by Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, and Mr. Cardin expects the measure to pass Congress if Mr. Clinton wins.
Although small business groups are opposed to any plan that would force them to buy health insurance, Mr. Cardin says some type of national plan is inevitable. "You'll have to pay for it one way or another," he said, either through national health insurance or through the employer-based plan he says business would undoubtedly find more palatable.
But Mr. Bricker says he has another, simpler way to solve the health care crisis. He proposes a national lottery that would help finance health care for those without insurance. "Poor people will gamble," Mr. Bricker has said, and he argues government should spend the money on insurance premiums rather than sports facilities.
Mr. Bricker bridles at government solutions. A disgruntled Democrat, he fled the party in 1988, complaining that it was consumed by "special interests and quotas." He is often critical of the Democratic-controlled Congress.
He favors a balanced-budget amendment as a way of forcing Washington not to overspend. Mr. Cardin, however, says Congress would have found a way to bypass a balanced-budget amendment, and he argues the deficit can only be reduced by specific cuts.
Forcing our allies to bear their defense costs would save between $50 billion and $100 billion each year, he says, adding that another $50 billion in cuts could be found in administrative savings in Medicare. Domestic spending also must face harsher scrutiny, he says, citing the space station as one possible area for reduced spending.
On crime, Mr. Bricker, a former Maryland assistant attorney general and assistant state's attorney in Baltimore, backs the death penalty, something Mr. Cardin opposes. Instead the congressman favors a waiting period for handgun purchases.
But Mr. Bricker balks at such a delay in allowing citizens to exercise their rights.
Mr. Cardin, a popular lawmaker with token opposition in the past, is easily outgunning his opponent. He is airing three TV ads that deal with health care, reforming Congress and reworking the federal budget to invest in such areas as education. Mr. Bricker has had to rely on lawn signs and less expensive newspaper ads to get his points across.
Still, Mr. Bricker says, he has a shot at winning. He has already done better than the last member of his family to run for Congress from the 3rd District. His mother, Lillian Klecka, lost the 1950 Democratic primary by 2,000 votes to Rep. Edward Garmatz.
Mr. Bricker pledges he would devote the next two years to serving in Congress -- pointedly asking whether his opponent would do the same.
"Is he running for Congress or running for governor?" Mr. Bricker often asks, repeating a question on the minds of many political observers who speculate that Mr. Cardin might try to fulfill a long-held ambition in 1994.
The congressman becomes coy when talk turns to Annapolis.
"I'll take it one day at a time," he says, explaining his focus is on 1992.
"After this election I'll give it some thought, do some polling, see what it looks like."