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Helping localize a national debate

The Baltimore Sun

Melanie Newman of Columbia wanted to know where the money would come from for the ambitious plans outlined by Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama to boost alternative energy production and reform health care.

Natalie Ferguson of Baltimore, a senior at McDonogh School, had a question about education and the worth of the No Child Left Behind program.

Veronica Peterson of Columbia asked about help for people who have lost their homes to foreclosure.

Those questions were posed to Republican Del. Gail H. Bates and Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings at a pre-presidential debate Thursday night in which the two acted as surrogates for each party's candidate. Both officials represent much of the same western areas of Howard County and Ellicott City, though Cummings' district also stretches through Baltimore County deep into Baltimore City.

The session drew more than 250 people to the Bridgeway Community Church's auditorium on Red Branch Road in Columbia, where they later watched the presidential debate on two huge flat-screen TV monitors on either side of the stage.

Each surrogate had 15 minutes to speak, and spectators could then ask questions until the real debate broadcast began.

Bates went first, which meant she didn't have to follow Cummings, who is known for his political oratory.

"Obviously, it is daunting against a very polished congressman," she said later.

Bates touched all the major points McCain has stressed - his record of service and leadership; his character, forged partly through his years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam; his advocacy for smaller government, less spending, lower taxes and school vouchers. She had some words of wisdom for voters too.

Because no one can say what will happen over the next four years, it might be less important to listen to the details of candidates' specific proposals, Bates said.

"Look at the character of individuals," she recommended. "[McCain] is not afraid to take a strong position."

On the other hand, a person's associations say a lot about who they are, Bates said, referring to the McCain camp's accusations that Obama's acquaintance with former radical William Ayers is suspect.

Cummings, co-chair of Obama's Maryland campaign, tried to put the issue of associations in a different light.

He's active with his own church, he told the crowd, and if his associations with some members became an issue, he might be in trouble.

"In our church, we invite sinners," the congressman said. "People that I hang with are former drug addicts, people who've gone through difficult times - people who have done some not so nice things."

Cummings said he has been impressed with Obama since he first met him years ago.

"He is a very special and gifted young man," he said. "I have watched him very carefully."

Cummings pointed to issues such as the response to Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq and health care as examples of badly managed efforts by the Republican administration of President Bush.

"We're at war on a credit card," Cummings said, referring to the $10 billion a month cost of the Iraq war, while the Iraqi government has been reported to possess a $79 billion surplus from oil sales.

While Republicans talk about less government, Democrats believe the current stock market meltdown shows more government intervention and oversight was needed.

"You've got to have someone watching what is going on," Cummings said.

Health care was another area of conflicting philosophy.

Bates said Obama wants a government-run health care system, which she said won't allow people to decide for themselves how and where to get care. Canadians, she said, come to the U.S. for health care, though they have a national health care system.

"We have ... the best health care system in the world," she said.

Cummings countered that a woman told him recently that she has pancreatic cancer but can't afford medicine even though she has insurance, and even with great medical institutions such as Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland Medical Center, both in his district. There is a crisis in health care, he said.

Tax policy was another major point of disagreement.

Bates joked that anyone with a substantial estate should plan to die in 2010, before Bush inheritance tax cuts expire. She defended general tax cuts, though Democrats have claimed the cuts have helped mostly the rich and created big deficits.

"When you cut tax rates across the board, there are going to be some people who benefit more than others," Bates said. "Fairness is when everybody is treated the same."

Bates also said she's very impressed with Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate.

"She lives what she says," Bates said.

It wasn't all contentious, though.

Asked what each person might choose as a good thing the opposing candidate has done or said, each had a ready reply.

Bates said she applauded Obama's support for a federal transparency in government law that will allow citizens to learn more about government spending. Maryland enacted a similar law this year.

Cummings praised McCain's statements about wanting to help people who have lost their homes to foreclosure.

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