Maryland U.S. Senate Candidates Argue Over Debate Appearances

Democratic Senate candidate Ben Cardin has accused his Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, of avoiding talk on the issues.

On Thursday, it was Cardin who apparently won't appear at a planned NAACP voters forum in Charles County. Cardin's decision not to attend set off more bickering among the campaigns about who does and doesn't want to debate.

Forum planners invited Steele, Cardin and independent candidate Kevin Zeese for talk about the race for an open Senate seat. Thursday morning, the group found out Cardin wasn't coming.

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Cardin's absence was unlikely to make a big difference in the race — the candidates have already debated twice, and Cardin and Steele will meet again in a nationally televised debate Sunday — but the Waldorf forum set off another round of finger-pointing among the campaigns.

So-called "debate debates" are becoming a hallmark of election-year politics; already, Maryland's gubernatorial candidates have accused the other of skirting debates before finally agreeing to two debates in one day.

Aides to Cardin insisted Thursday that Cardin wanted to debate Steele, but said earlier scheduling conflicts prevented his appearance. Cardin was set to attend a rally in Prince George's County Thursday night.

"For Michael Steele, who has been ducking issues for 18 months now, to accuse Ben Cardin of not debating is sheer hypocrisy," Cardin spokesman Oren Shur said. "We have a schedule. We're not rearranging our schedule for Michael Steele."

The president of the Charles County NAACP, William Braxton, said there was never a formal confirmation from Cardin that he'd attend, but Cardin appeared to be planning to come.

"Until this morning we were under the impression he was going to be there," Braxton said.

The Maryland Republican Party claimed that Cardin did poorly in a Wednesday debate, which explained his expected absence Thursday.

Plenty of fireworks were still possible at a debate between Steele and Zeese, the nominee of the Green, Libertarian and Populist parties. Zeese has said both his opponents are too cozy with party leadership to be independent senators.

Steele's campaign centers largely on his pitch to be a good listener for voters and a new face in Congress. Cardin, a 20-year Democrat, emphasizes his liberal credentials and opposition to the war in Iraq. Cardin planned to appear Saturday at a Baltimore forum for the statewide National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; it was unclear whether Steele was appearing.