WYE MILLS - Congressional candidates Andy Harris and Frank Kratovil sparred over taxes, regulation and the truthfulness of advertisements yesterday in a final debate that matched the contentious tone of their relentless campaign commercials.
In the sharpest exchange, Kratovil called a Harris ad a "lie" because it contains a Kratovil quotation on the financial crisis that was later corrected by the newspaper that first reported it.
Harris stood by the ad, saying, "The quote is accurate."
The meeting between Harris, a Republican state senator from Baltimore County, and Kratovil, the Democratic state's attorney for Queen Anne's County, continued the acrimony that has characterized Maryland's most competitive race this year.
They are running for the seat now held by Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a moderate ousted by the conservative Harris this year in a bitterly fought Republican primary.
Hard feelings from that contest, a difficult political environment for Republicans nationwide and lots of outside money have transformed the race for what was expected to be a safe GOP seat. Maryland's 1st Congressional District joins the Eastern Shore with parts of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties.
A win by Harris would keep the seat in the Republican column, while moving the district's representation to the right. A Kratovil victory would give Democrats their seventh of eight seats in Maryland's House delegation.
A poll last week by the Olney firm Research 2000 showed Harris leading Kratovil among likely voters, 44 percent to 40 percent - a difference that fell within the five-point margin of error. National analysts have moved the race from a likely Republican hold to a tossup.
Television viewers have been bombarded with advertisements, many paid for by outside groups, that attempt to portray both candidates as out of touch with voters.
One of those ads, by Harris, drew sharp comments from Kratovil last night.
"I'm asking you tonight whether you can tell the people here that are watching why it is you are continuing to run an ad that quotes me on something that you know I never said?" Kratovil said.
He was referring to a commercial and mailings in which the Harris campaign refers to a story in The Daily Times of Salisbury that quoted Kratovil as saying, "We solved the crisis." After reviewing a recording of the comment, the newspaper amended the line to read, in part, "... in this country we often times deal with a crisis, we solve a crisis but we don't always deal with the long term issues that led to the crisis."
Harris said he would post an audio clip of Kratovil's original comments on his campaign Web site to let the public judge.
"The quote is accurate," Harris said. "That's the bottom line."
Harris and Kratovil both said the choice for voters should be clear. "Andy and I don't agree on much of anything," Kratovil said.
On a stimulus package, Harris said he would consider reducing the corporate tax rate and a temporary reduction of the capital gains tax on financial institutions.
Kratovil said cuts, if appropriate, should focus on the middle class and small businesses, and suggested credits for child care and college tuition. He said the cuts Harris proposed wouldn't help the middle class: "We should all have learned that by now."
Harris responded that "it must be political season."
"Back in March, Mr. Kratovil, you said, quote, it's irresponsible to talk about any tax cuts," he said. "But I guess now it's a little more responsible, now that an Election Day is approaching.
"My record is pretty clear," Harris continued. "I've signed a no new taxes pledge."
Asked about the future of the country, Harris invoked Joe the Plumber. The Ohio man - his full name is Samuel J. Wurzelbacher - confronted Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama recently with a question about the taxes he would be assessed if he bought his boss' plumbing company.
"He's a fellow that has a dream," Harris said. "The opponents call that a fantasy." He said Democratic policies "discouraged American individualism."
Kratovil said Wurzelbacher, who would receive a tax cut under Obama's plan, would be better served by Democratic policies.
"The bottom line is Joe the Plumber is hurting because of the policies that we've had over the last number of years that aren't helping Joe the Plumber," he said.
Kratovil favored greater regulation of financial institutions; Harris called for "smarter regulation." Kratovil said the federal government should provide "equal opportunity to quality education" and promote excellence in schools; Harris said the U.S. Department of Education serves no need.
Kratovil said the United States should not have invaded Iraq and must now find a responsible way to exit. Harris said troops should remain in Iraq until Gen. David Petraeus says the job is finished.
On Social Security, Harris said he agreed with Al Gore: Contributions should be put in a "lock box." He said the question of how to keep the program solvent has become so politicized that a nonpartisan commission should be established to develop a solution.
Libertarian Richard James Davis also appeared at the event yesterday at Chesapeake College; he spoke for low taxes and limited government, and said he was opposed to the war in Iraq from the beginning. Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, attended in support of Harris.
The debate came as outside groups stepped up spending in the district. The anti-tax Club for Growth, which sent $1.2 million Harris' way for the primary, announced a $100,000 ad buy yesterday.
The two 15-second spots, to air in the Baltimore and Salisbury markets, conclude that Kratovil is "extremely liberal." A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee advertisement that began running on Sunday claims Harris' agenda ignores the middle class.
Harris' own campaign launched a pair of 15-second ads featuring the endorsement of Ehrlich, who took 67 percent of the district vote in 2006. The Kratovil campaign, which has touted the support of Gilchrest, released a pair of commercials featuring him and other Republicans saying they plan to vote for Kratovil.