U.S. Senate candidates Benjamin L. Cardin and Michael S. Steele presented starkly opposing positions yesterday on the Iraq war, embryonic stem cell research, abortion and judicial nominations during a nationally televised debate held nine days before Maryland voters cast ballots in one of the country's more closely watched contests.
With the balance of power in the Senate at stake Nov. 7, Cardin and Steele faced off on NBC's Meet the Press with host Tim Russert. Discussion of the Iraq war dominated the hourlong conversation, but what also emerged were portraits of stylistically distinct lawmakers.
Cardin, a staid 10-term Democratic congressman who has struggled in previous debates to rebut Steele's attacks, received less airtime than his Republican rival. Russert honed in instead on the more extroverted but substantively elusive Steele, attempting to pin down his views on controversial social issues.
The host also queried Steele about his ties to the Bush administration and whether he believes his party affiliation is a liability in Maryland, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin.
In the final minutes of the encounter, Cardin appeared more sure-footed than his rival in handling questions on abortion and stem cell research, subjects on which he is more liberal than Steele.
Iraq garnered the most attention, with both candidates struggling to present a clear strategy for withdrawal even as opinion polls show that the public has grown weary of the war. Steele, Maryland's lieutenant governor and a former head of the state Republican Party, called Iraq "a mess that we need to fix" but said he still would have opted to invade.
"I would think we'd still prosecute the war," Steele said.
Russert challenged Cardin, who voted against the 2002 Iraq war resolution, on a prior statement in which he said he would consider cutting off funding for the conflict.
"I will not support putting our troops at risk," Cardin said, noting that he wants other countries to increase their diplomatic presence to stabilize Iraq.
"There's a lot of different options that Congress can consider, including contingencies of funds," Cardin said. "And if the Democrats get back control of the United States Senate, then the amendments can be presented in a way that could be constructive in getting the president to submit a new plan."
Steele tried to shift blame for the war's missteps from the White House to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Asked whether Rumsfeld should resign, Steele said, "Let's put it this way: He wouldn't be my secretary of defense."
The lieutenant governor also said that if the situation in Iraq goes unchanged for six months that he would entertain proposals for withdrawal.
"Look, if the Iraqi people don't want this, if they're content to have this internal strife, they want civil war, they want this terrorist beachhead to be formed, then we will have to re-evaluate our policy," Steele said. "And that would be on the table, absolutely."
The Maryland encounter marked the final installment in a series of six Meet the Press Senate debates featuring the high-profile contests of the season. Previous shows presented candidates from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Missouri and Minnesota.
Polls show the Maryland contest might be growing more competitive, and the Cook Political Report last week changed its outlook from "leans Democrat" to "toss-up." A Washington Post poll published yesterday shows Cardin, a former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, leading Steele 54 percent to 43 percent. A Rasmussen Reports survey released a day earlier showed Cardin ahead, 50 percent to 45 percent.
Maryland's overwhelmingly Democratic registration numbers pose a built-in challenge for Steele, but he must also overcome impressions -- reinforced routinely by Cardin and others in the Democratic Party -- that he is beholden to President Bush, whose top officials recruited Steele to run and have raised money for his campaign.
Russert showed video yesterday from the 2004 Republican National Convention in which Steele, a featured speaker, lauded Bush for being the standard-bearer that drew him to the GOP. Noting that Steele has avoided identifying himself as a Republican in his campaign literature and on his Web site, Russert also mentioned that the candidate has called the president his "homeboy."
"If he's your homeboy, why are you running away from him?" Russert asked.
"I'm not running away from him; I'm running for the United States Senate," Steele said. "I've been outed. OK, everyone, I'm a Republican."
To reinforce his line of questioning, Russert held up a blue bumper sticker reading "Steele Democrat," and said, "That's not truth in advertising."
Steele hedged on a string of questions about embryonic stem cell research. The candidates have dueling television ads on the air; Cardin's features the actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, while Steele's stars his sister, a pediatrician who reveals that she has multiple sclerosis.
"Your sister said that the Michael J. Fox ad was deceptive and tasteless. Why?" Russert asked Steele.
"Because it said that I don't support stem cell research, and I do support stem cell research," Steele said. "Where I have drawn the line is federal funding for research that destroys the embryo."
Russert asked Steele whether he opposes embryonic stem cell research because he views it as the "taking of a life."
"Yes, I see that as a life, and I don't think that we should use federal funds to do that," Steele said.
When Russert asked what should be done with the thousands of frozen embryos in fertility clinics across the nation that would otherwise be discarded, Steele said that adoption should be considered.
"We could set up adoptions for those embryos," Steele said. "There are so many other options that we can pursue that we don't. ... But as a society, we must consider the religious, the moral and the ethical values of that society, and that needs to be a part of this as well."
Cardin told Russert that embryonic stem cell research should receive federal support -- for the sake of public health and the local economy.
"The difference between Michael Steele and myself is the difference between moving forward with embryonic stem cell research or not," Cardin said. "In my state of Maryland, we have great research facilities: Johns Hopkins University, the [National Institutes of Health] is involved, University of Maryland Medical Center. They're making great advancements, but we're going to lose these scientists. They're going to go to other countries if we don't allow responsible embryonic stem cell research."
On abortion, Steele repeatedly declined to say whether he would support overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling in 1973 that established a constitutional right to abortion.
"I think Roe vs. Wade is a matter that should've been left to the states to decide," Steele said. "But it is where it is today, and the courts will ultimately decide whether or not this gets addressed by the states, goes back to the states in some form or they overturn it outright."
Talking with reporters later, Steele said that his religious beliefs influence his views on abortion.
"Everyone knows I'm a pro-life Roman Catholic, and that weighs in how I approach this issue," he said.
Russert challenged Cardin's vote against requiring parental consent for an abortion. Cardin said parents "should be involved in the decisions of their children," but that in situations of neglect and abuse, exceptions must be made.
"I am in favor of what is commonly known as pro-choice, to give a woman a right of choice and for government not interfering. I don't get comfort in listening to Mr. Steele's response. And let me also point out, when he was asked specifically about the abortion issue, he said: 'What does that have anything to do with the United States Senate? We don't take that issue up.' And there have been many votes in the United States Senate that deal with a woman's right of choice."
Russert questioned both candidates about Supreme Court justices. Steele declined to say whether he would have voted against any sitting justice, calling it a "gotcha" question.
"Hardly," Russert shot back. "It's one of the most important tasks of a United States senator."
Cardin said that neither Samuel A. Alito Jr. nor Clarence Thomas met his personal requirements for acceptable justices.
The candidates revealed perhaps as much about their personalities off the air as they did on it. During a commercial break, Steele chatted up Russert on topics from an upcoming "fight night" to family talk. Cardin sat quietly, at one point looking over his shoulder and into a crowd for his wife, Myrna, who was sitting nearby. He caught her eye, and she waved. He smiled and turned back to the table.
Both were ready for another round.