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GOP Senate candidates discuss terrorism, national security in debate at UB

On a day of deadly bombings in Brussels, three of the leading Republican contenders for U.S. Senate grappled with national security and the fight against terrorism in a debate at the University of Baltimore

On a day of deadly bombings in Brussels, three of the leading Republican contenders for the U.S. Senate from Maryland grappled Tuesday evening with national security and the fight against terrorism in a debate at the University of Baltimore.

Richard J. Douglas, a former Pentagon official and U.S. Senate aide, took a tough stance against Apple, which has been resisting a court order to help the FBI access data on the cellphone of a suspect in shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., last year.

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"Dead terrorists do not have Fourth Amendment rights," Douglas said. "Period. They just don't."

Chrys Kefalas, an official at the National Association of Manufacturers, agreed. But Del. Kathy Szeliga, the minority whip in the Maryland House of Delegates and narrowly the front-runner in the race, said compelling the technology company to help would be a step too far.

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"Cybersecurity is very important," she said. "I would not be in favor of the government forcing Apple to build a back door."

The race to be the Republican nominee for the Senate seat held by Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski, who is retiring, has drawn less attention than the Democratic contest between Reps. Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen. The Republican candidates have lower public profiles and have raised less money. Their debate was sponsored by The Baltimore Sun, University of Baltimore, WJZ and Baltimore City League of Women Voters.

The primary election is April 26.

In a state where registered Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans and the last GOP candidate to win a U.S. Senate race was Charles Mathias in 1980, Republicans face a challenging battle to capture the seat in November.

Asked how they would appeal to independents and Democrats to assemble a winning coalition in the general election, the candidates offered their own theories.

Szeliga pointed to the success of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who pulled off a surprise victory in 2014. Having served in Annapolis since 2011, Szeliga painted herself as a Washington outsider and said her appeal as a mother, grandmother and small-business owner would let her follow Hogan's path.

"They're looking for a real person, a real Marylander who has proven leadership skills," she said.

Douglas said voters he's spoken to in Baltimore are energized by the prospect of Donald Trump being on the presidential ballot. He said he thinks the brash businessman could help draw new supporters to the Republican Party.

Kefalas, who has worked for both Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Democratic U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, said he's the only candidate with bipartisan experience.

"I can get record numbers of Democrats to join our cause," he said.

The primary race is wide open, according to a Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore poll conducted this month, with almost eight in ten Republican respondents saying they had yet to make up their minds. Szeliga held a slight lead, but all the candidates had single-digit levels of support.

The three candidates were designated the leading contenders to debate from the field of 14 hopefuls by guidelines set by League of Women Voters. The debate will be broadcast on WJZ-TV and streamed on baltimoresun.com and CBSbaltimore.com at 7 p.m. April 2. Democratic candidates Edwards and Van Hollen are scheduled to debate Friday. Their debate will be broadcast and streamed at 7 p.m. Monday.

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The Republicans roamed widely Tuesday night, tackling questions on climate change, gun rights, the economy and student debt.

On some of the biggest challenges facing the country — failing infrastructure, student debt and struggling government finances — the three candidates settled on more rapid growth and a stronger economy as something of a cure-all solution.

"The key is to light that rocket and then stand out of the way," Douglas said in response to a question about the nation's future fiscal health. He called for cutting red tape that hurts American exporters.

Asked about how to fund the country's infrastructure, Kefalas said creating jobs is the answer.

"Unleash the American economy and we can invest in the long-term infrastructure challenges and opportunities that our nation needs," he said.

And Szeliga said the problem of college debt could be answered by creating well-paying jobs that don't necessarily need a degree.

"We need our kids to know these are great futures," she said.

The three candidates were asked about how they would approach the Supreme Court vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia's death. If Merrick Garland, a U.S. appeals court judge and President Barack Obama's pick for the spot, is not confirmed this year, deciding on a nominee would be one of the first big votes they might have to take when the new Senate convenes.

Kefalas said the current senators should take up the issue while Republicans hold a majority, but didn't say whether a nominee ought to be confirmed and said he'd like to see another justice in the mold of the conservative Scalia.

"As Republicans, we do not know who the next president of the United States will be, we do not know who will hold control of the United States Senate," he said. "As long as we control the United States Senate we have leverage."

Szeliga cited the battle over the vacancy as another example of a faulty political system in Washington, calling the fight "partisan politics at its worst."

"I think it's reasonable for U.S. senators to meet with whomever the president has appointed," she said.

Douglas said he didn't trust Obama and said he'd be willing to take the court fight forward next year.

"If I'm in the U.S. Senate and President Hillary Clinton nominates Barack Obama to the Supreme Court, I'm going to block it," he said.

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