Maryland Senate candidates face off in debate

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Four candidates for U.S. Senate wrangled over the economy, budget deficits and the state's controversial ballot initiatives in a Wednesday radio debate that stressed deep ideological differences on how to deal with the nation's pressing problems.

Incumbent Democrat Ben Cardin, who is widely favored to win the race, and Republican challenger Daniel Bongino offered vastly different approaches to nearly every question.

Cardin called for more investments in education and a mix of spending cuts and taxes to address the nation's budget woes. Bongino, a former Secret Service agent running his first political campaign, repeatedly vowed to not vote for tax increases and said he would work to repeal the new federal health care law.

If the debate sounded familiar at times, it is because both candidates hewed closely to campaign messages espoused by their presidential nominees.

"The most important thing we can do now is have a responsible plan to deal with the deficit," Cardin said during the exchange, which WOLB broadcast live. "Everyone has to play according to the same rules. …Everybody should be paying their fair share."

As he has done throughout the campaign, Bongino sought to tie Cardin and other Democrats to the economy.

"This is not an election, it's a cry for help," he said. "This is the worst recovery, post-World War II, that we have ever had."

The 90-minute debate was also an opportunity for independent candidate Rob Sobhani, who entered the race in September after collecting 77,000 signatures to put his name on the ballot. The Potomac businessman has poured millions of dollars of his own money into television advertising but has yet to pose a serious threat.

Sobhani, chief executive of a consulting firm called Caspian Group, said he will boost Maryland's economy by attracting $5 billion in private investment to the state, though he has offered few specifics about how he would do so. On dealing with deficits, Sobhani has said he would hire forensic accountants — in his words, "CSI Miami, CSI New York" — to assess the extent of the nation's budget problems.

"We've got a broken political system," he said during the debate. "There are opportunities out there that our elected officials have failed to go after."

With less than two weeks to go before the Nov. 6 election, no independent observer believes Cardin is vulnerable in deeply Democratic Maryland — despite aggressive campaigning by Bongino and Sobhani's television blitz. A Washington Post poll this month showed Cardin with 53 percent of the vote compared with 22 percent for Bongino and 14 percent for Sobhani.

Yet many Republicans credit Bongino — a frequent guest on national media — with invigorating the state party this year. That has led to widespread speculation about his political future. The Republican managed to raise more campaign cash in the past three months than Cardin — a remarkable coup for a newcomer — but he has only about one-tenth of Cardin's cash on hand.

The candidates presented different positions on this year's high-profile state ballot questions. Cardin reiterated support for legalizing same-sex marriage — "love is love," he said — and allowing some illegal immigrants to attend Maryland colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates. Bongino said he would vote against both of those referendum questions. Both candidates demurred on the ballot initiative to expand gambling.

Sobhani said he opposed the gambling measure, but he did not weigh in directly on the other issues.

A fourth candidate, Libertarian Dean Ahmad, argued that many of the nation's most difficult issues would be better handled by local government. He made arguments against the gay-marriage, gambling and tuition ballot questions.

"If we lose our liberty," Ahmad said, "we have lost our soul."

The candidates will meet again at Salisbury University on Tuesday. A third debate will be broadcast live by WTTG-TV in Washington at 9 a.m. next Wednesday.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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