They sparred and parried, dashed President Bush and called for a wholesale re-evaluation of U.S. foreign policy.
But the nine Democratic presidential candidates who met on a debate stage at Morgan State University last night won few converts among leading partisans in Maryland.
Only a few party leaders here have chosen favorites in the race for president. And while the debate offered the state's political crowd a rare, up-close view of nine candidates, the endorsements from many state Democratic leaders remain largely up for grabs.
"It was fun to hear them all and to start thinking about them," said Del. Jon S. Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat.
But it didn't move him to declare allegiance.
"I'm going to keep my mind open," he said.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan also declined to pick a candidate, saying that he was impressed with the strength of the field.
"Whoever emerges from this will be a formidable opponent," he said.
State Sen. Paula C. Hollinger of Baltimore County came away with a different impression, saying that she's still hoping for another choice, such as retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who is the subject of an Internet draft movement.
"I don't dislike any of them and I'll back [Sen. John] Kerry or [Rep. Richard A.] Gephardt or whoever, but I don't think they can win," Hollinger said.
The Baltimore debate did not go off without a few hitches. The event began with hundreds still in line outside the Carl Murphy Fine Arts Center, delayed by sensitive metal detectors and a rush of late arrivers.
Four people escorted from the auditorium for being disorderly were arrested outside the building by university police, according to city police. Morgan police refused late last night to disclose the names of those arrested, the charges or details.
If voters are looking for clues from homegrown politicians as to whom to support, they will have to wait a little longer.
"I wanted to wait for a while to see how this year moved forward," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which sponsored the debate.
Cummings, who has not thrown his support behind a candidate, said before the debate: "I think it's important that I hear, and others hear, more from these candidates."
Maryland's two U.S. senators have not thrown their support behind anyone in the race.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said he's leaning toward Kerry of Massachusetts or former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
"I haven't put a lot of thought into it yet," Busch said.
Similarly, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat, is holding back.
"I have a number of people I consider close friends who haven't broken out of the pack," Miller said. "Dick Gephardt, [John] Edwards and Kerry."
To be sure, some state Democrats have made their picks.
Missouri's Gephardt has the backing of three of Maryland's six Democratic congressmen: Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Benjamin L. Cardin and Steny H. Hoyer.
Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County has endorsed Edwards of North Carolina.
And Del. Kumar P. Barve, the majority leader from Montgomery County, has aligned himself with Florida Sen. Bob Graham.
"I agree with him on the issues," Barve said. "He voted against the war resolution; he voted against tax cuts for the rich, and he's a pro-choice, pro-business Democrat."
Del. Curtis S. Anderson of Baltimore said he is backing Dean and predicts that he will be the eventual nominee.
"There are so many people catching that fire," Anderson said. "Frankly, I think it's over."
Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele said in a conference call after the debate that none of the candidates put forward a vision of where to take the country.
"What I saw was more of a protest rally," Steele said.
Maryland Republican Party Chairman John Kane said none of the candidates on stage last night would become president.
"These nine people couldn't policy debate their way out of a wet grocery bag," he said.