Puppies vs. issues in Maryland Senate race

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – When the politics gets rough, the politicians get puppies—at least that seems to be the case in what could become a tight Senate race in Maryland, one of the bluest of blue states.

As the country debates weighty issues such as whether to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions to make President Bush’s military tribunals legal and how to move forward in Iraq, the candidates in Maryland’s Senate race are spending an inordinate amount of time talking about puppies.

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, the GOP nominee for Senate, has been running a television advertisement meant to illustrate that in an anti-Republican political environment, he is a Washington outsider. With Moseby, a black and white Boston Terrier at his side, Steele holds up a fake newspaper with the headline, “Steele Hates Puppies.”

“For the record,” he says, “I love puppies.” 

Lately, it seems that the puppy metaphor is taking on a life of its own in a contest that pits Steele, who is black, against Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who has a reputation as a cautious if skillful legislator.

Following the divisive primary between Cardin and former Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.), Maryland Democrats displayed a unified front yesterday at a rally starring Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). 

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the president of the college Democrats, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Mfume and Cardin all demanded that the election focus on issues. But the speeches, which were typical of most politically rallies, were issueless. Instead, they were filled with long-winded introductions and pointed jabs at Steele. 

“Who says Ben Cardin isn’t flashy?” asked Ruppersberger as he warmed up the crowd of about 1,000 college students sitting in the college’s amphitheater on a brilliant sunny morning. “Ben Cardin likes puppies too.”

Mikulski stepped onto a block so that she could be seen over the microphones and told the audience that, “I was neutral in the primary, but not passive,” recalling how she once had a divisive primary that left her without any money for the general election. Now is the time for unity, she said, while praising both Cardin and Mfume, who ran more than 19,000 votes behind Cardin in the Sept. 12 primary. 

Mikulski introduced Mfume, who gave Cardin a hearty handshake and manly bear hug before he spoke. But he could not resist a few digs at Cardin’s expense and a lecture at the party’s.

“Ben would tell you that I’d be a great senator,” if he had won the election, Mfume said. “But Ben is the nominee and we’ll support the nominee.”

Mfume, who has a stage actor and preacher’s presence, said he would be “less than honest” not to acknowledge that the Democratic candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and senate are all white males. 

“We have a problem [when the ticket] in 2006 looks like 1956,” Mfume said, referring to Baltimore Mayor Mike O’Malley and Cardin, who are white. “It will never be this way again.”

O’Malley’s running mate, Anthony Brown, has a Swiss mother and Jamaican father.

Cummings and Wynn have said that Mfume needed to embrace Cardin to solidify his standing among black voters. Cummings said Mfume did just that. But Cardin seemed to be overshadowed speaking after Mfume and before Obama.

Cardin started by thanking every public official on stage – at which point the overwhelmingly 20-something crowd – including a student wearing a T-shirt that read, “If I am lying why aren’t my pants on fire?” – grew fidgety.

Cardin segued into attacking Steele. Explaining that Mfume and he did not attack each other in their hard-fought primary race, Cardin said, “It’s hard for Michael Steele to understand that [we did not attack each other]. Voters want us to talk about the issues.”

He questioned Steele’s decision not to appear with him last week on MSNBC’s “Hardball” and wondered why he has been afraid to talk about the issues. In quick succession, he promised to “hold President Bush accountable” on health insurance, stem-cell research, Social Security and the war in Iraq and argued that Steele won’t.

At best, students rewarded him with small golf claps.

Having grown antsy toward the end of Cardin’s remarks, the crowd roared as Cardin began introducing Obama. Wearing a blue suit, white shirt and light-blue tie, Obama stepped up to the lectern and looked out over the crowd.

“I’m fired up now,” Obama said, which inspired more cheers as he started his 15-minute stump speech.

If Cardin plodded and Mfume thundered, Obama is all folksy narrative. When he started out in politics, Mfume was a role model because he had a name that was difficult to pronounce, Obama said.

As a young man running for the Illinois state Senate, Obama said, voters asked him, “Where do you get the funny name?” and that while trying to talk to as many voters as possible (“Is that Jared down there on the corner?” he said) he was called “Your mama” and “Alabama.”

Laughter emanated from the audience. As he talked about his Kenyan father, a woman from Kenya cheered. When he mentioned his Kansas-born mother, the Kansans hollered.

When he took a dig at Steele’s professed love of puppies, the crowd roared with approval.

“I’ve met [Steele] and I shook his hand. He’s an affable guy,” Obama said during his 15-minute stump speech. “I bet he likes puppies. That’s not what this election is about.”

But more than any previous speaker, Obama lauded Cardin’s credentials and character, which whipped the audience into a frenzy.

“He won’t miss a beat” in succeeding Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), said Obama, adding that, “Y’all found him. He’s risen to the highest ranks in politics … his integrity has never been questioned … he’s never cut corners or cashed in. You’ve got to put this guy in the Senate.”