HAGERSTOWN ——Incumbent Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett and Democratic challenger John Delaney pitched vastly different approaches to deal with unemployment, federal deficits and immigration, while both hewed closely to their party's talking points Wednesday during the first televised debate of the state's marquee congressional race.
Bartlett, a Republican who is considered the underdog in his bid for an 11th term in the 6th District, did little to moderate his more conservative views on regulations and education, even though his once-red district became more Democratic in last year's statewide redistricting. He also fended off an attack from Delaney in one of the few direct exchanges between the candidates, demonstrating a spirit that has been largely absent from his campaign.
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"What people want most from government is for government to get out of the way," said Bartlett, a Buckeystown scientist and farmer. "Any job that the government creates, just by definition, is going to be a job that consumes wealth."
Delaney, who is running to represent a district that now includes roughly 300,000 Montgomery County voters — many of them part of the federal workforce — said he believes government can and should be more active in encouraging growth.
"Government is absolutely not creating the jobs — the private sector creates the jobs," said Delaney, the co-founder of a Chevy Chase-based bank called CapitalSource. "But government puts the infrastructure in place and levels the playing field."
The hour-long debate took place at Hagerstown Community College and was broadcast live by WHAG-TV. The tightly scripted format left little opportunity for rebuttal as the candidates zipped through a long list of issues, including infrastructure spending, abortion and entitlement reform. Libertarian Party candidate Nickolaus Mueller also participated, sometimes siding with Bartlett and at other times arguing that Republicans and Democrats are equally misguided.
Democrats in Washington view the 6th District as one of their best opportunities anywhere in the nation to pick off an incumbent Republican. Delaney has raised more campaign cash than Bartlett and has pumped an additional $1.9 million of his own money into the race. In an indication of the attention the district is receiving in Democratic circles, former President Bill Clinton and top state elected leaders attended a fundraiser for Delaney on Tuesday.
Without directly engaging each other, Delaney and Bartlett disagreed on a wide range of issues. Delaney, a Roman Catholic, said he supports a woman's right to have an abortion, while Bartlett, who has a degree in theology, said he opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest and when the health of the mother is at risk. Bartlett said he doesn't believe the federal government should have a hand in education — including in the creation of low-interest student loans — and called for more competition for public schools. Delaney said he agrees with the importance of competition but said he supports federal programs like Head Start and Pell grants.
Responding to a question about inspections of food and drugs, Delaney said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is playing "an inherently governmental role" to "make sure the drugs that are introduced on the market are safe." Bartlett said that when a "bad drug … gets out on the market, there's nobody more hurt" than the company responsible and said the pharmaceutical industry would "do a better job of self-regulation than we're doing, if we let them do it."
On immigration, Delaney said Congress should create a path to citizenship for those who are here illegally while also working to secure the nation's borders. Bartlett countered that such an approach is a "kind of amnesty -- you're kind of rewarding bad behavior."
The candidates presented different styles, with Delaney answering many questions with a series of businesslike talking points — first this, then that — and Bartlett often starting off with anecdote or a statistic.
In one of the debate's few confrontations, Delaney attacked Bartlett for being a member of the House tea party caucus, a group created by former Republican presidential candidate and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
"My opponent is a member of the tea party, which is an organization that came to Washington to do nothing," Delaney said. "I want to go to Washington to get things done."
Bartlett, in rare opportunity to respond, countered: "I joined the tea party because what they wanted to do is what America needed, which is to focus on the Constitution."
The candidates have so far agreed to four more debates, though none will be televised.