The two Democratic candidates running for Senate in Maryland came out swinging in their first formal exchange on Sunday, debating each other's commitment to Social Security, effectiveness in office and electability in next year's general election.
In a feisty candidate forum organized by the Maryland Chapter of the National Organization for Women -- the first in the nascent race to replace retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski -- Reps. Donna F. Edwards and Chris Van Hollen sought to amplify distinctions in their records on trade, entitlements and women's issues.
Edwards, a Prince George's County Democrat, directly attacked Van Hollen for past comments on Social Security, suggesting that he previously had been open to cuts to the landmark program that benefits 60 million seniors and disabled people.
"Here is where there is and has been, frankly, a fundamental difference between myself and Chris Van Hollen," Edwards said to several hundred people gathered for the forum in Rockville.
"When it came time to cut a deal that was part of a budget deal, Mr. Van Hollen was willing to consider -- those were his own words -- cuts to Social Security and Medicare," she said.
Van Hollen, of Montgomery County, defended his position, noting he had fought President Barack Obama on the same issue during discussions over a "grand bargain" to reduce budget deficits. Without criticizing Edwards directly, Van Hollen repeatedly touted his ability to "get things done" and hinted at the idea that he would be more electable in a general election than Edwards.
"We cannot take this general election to the United States Senate for granted. We just saw what happened in the race for governor," Van Hollen said, noting that he unseated Republican incumbent Connie Morella in a newly drawn House district in 2002.
"I'm proud to have a record in the state legislature, not just of voting the way other Democrats vote but working to get things done," he said.
Edwards has tried to position herself to the left of Van Hollen, touting her liberal positions and noting the historic significance of her candidacy. If elected, she would be only the second African-American woman to serve in the Senate -- and the first from Maryland.
"It's really important that when we're talking about equal pay for equal work that we know that there's a woman sitting at the table who's experienced unequal pay," Edwards said. "It's important to have somebody around the table, like me, who understands what that discussion is all about."
Van Hollen, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, has been pressing idea that the ability to get legislation through Congress is more important than ideological purity.
Edwards' Social Security attack is not new. She raised the issue right out of the gate in a video she used to announce her candidacy in March. Sunday was the first time she had discussed it so directly, with Van Hollen sitting feet away.
Edwards and progressive Democratic groups have questioned Van Hollen for statements he made suggesting the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction recommendations in 2010 could provide a "framework" for a grand bargain on spending and taxes. He never endorsed the proposal directly and he opposed the idea of reducing annual benefit increases when Obama offered it to Republicans as part of that deal.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, a longtime Van Hollen ally, said in March she felt there is no significant difference between the candidates on the issue.
"Almost every member of the delegation is looking at the race and I think all of them subscribe to strengthening Medicare as they did in the Affordable Care Act and preserving Social Security -- prolonging the life of both of them," Pelosi said.
Similarly, it's not clear how much of a threat Republicans will pose in the general election contest next fall. Turnout was particularly low in Democratic areas of the state for last year's gubernatorial election, a factor that is not likely to be as pronounced during the 2016 presidential election.
In one possible indication of that changed landscape, no Republican has stepped forward to announce they will seek the seat next year. For now, impendent political analysts rate the Maryland Senate contest as safe for Democrats.
Other Democrats are considering a run for the seat, including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings -- the Baltimore lawmaker who has been a frequent presence on the city's streets following the riots that erupted on Monday -- and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former lieutenant governor.
On trade, both Edwards and Van Hollen oppose fast-tracking congressional approval of an agreement the Obama administration is negotiating with 11 Pacific Rim nations. But Edwards swiped at Van Hollen for supporting previous deals, such as with Colombia and South Korea. Liberal Democrats and unions argue the trade deals ship U.S. jobs overseas to countries with less stringent environmental and labor standards.
Van Hollen said he considers each trade agreement on their own merits.
"There are times, in my view, when the United States can benefit from trade agreements," he said. "There are times when the specifics of the agreements...lead you to the opposite conclusion."