Rivals in Maryland's closely watched Senate race sparred over Iraq, abortion and stem cell research on Sunday, with the Republican saying the war is "a mess" and states should decide abortion rights.
Michael Steele, the Republican lieutenant governor, said the situation in Iraq was not President Bush's fault and he faulted the Pentagon for poor planning.
"There's not a great deal of confidence on the ground that we can get this thing done," Steele said. "The Department of Defense did not give the president the kind of strategy to win this war." Asked where the war stood now, he replied, "I think the war in Iraq stands with a mess we have to fix."
Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin repeated his opposition to the war - he voted against authorizing the use of force - but said he opposed a deadline for withdrawal.
Cardin has said he thinks U.S. troops could be withdrawn by 2007, but said during the debate on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the date is a goal, not a deadline.
"I don't believe in a time schedule," Cardin said. He said some troops should come home immediately while the U.S. regroups and tries to find other countries as partners in stabilizing Iraq.
"It is reasonable to believe our troops could be out by the end of 2007," he said.
Control of Congress
Steele and Cardin are competing for the seat left open by retiring Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes in predominantly Democratic Maryland. Democrats must gain six seats to take control of the Senate.
A poll released Sunday by The Washington Post had Cardin leading Steele by 11 percentage points.
Steele, a conservative Catholic, would not say whether he would vote for a constitutional amendment banning abortion, saying abortion was not an issue for the federal government to decide.
"I think Roe v. Wade is a matter that should've been left up to the states," Steele said.
Cardin said abortion should remain legal and that he would have opposed the nomination of the newest Supreme Court justice, Samuel Alito. While Alito worked in the Reagan administration, he wrote a memo that said there was no constitutional right to an abortion.
Stem cell debate
The candidates also clashed on embryonic stem cell research. Steele defended his television ad in which his sister, who has multiple sclerosis, calls a Cardin ad tasteless because it airs an endorsement from actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease.
Steele repeated that he opposes funding for stem cell research that kills a human embryo and said he would like to see unused embryos at fertility clinics be used in adoptions rather than discarded.
"We could set up adoptions for those embryos," Steele said. He said embryonic stem cell research is "not fully developed" and should not be funded.
Cardin repeated his support for federal funding of the research. It holds promise for advocates of patients with a variety of illnesses because of the cells' potential to transform into any type of human tissue, perhaps leading to new treatments.
Meanwhile, Steele was questioned about whether he tries to distance himself from the president.
"I'm not running away from George Bush. I'm not running toward George Bush. I'm running for the United States Senate," Steele said.
Cardin said Congress should have investigated whether the president overstepped the law with his domestic wiretapping program. "Congress needs to exercise its oversight function," Cardin said.
An independent candidate in the race, Kevin Zeese, was not invited to the debate. The Cardin-Steele debate, their fourth meeting, may be the last before election day, though Cardin's camp said it was possible they would meet again Friday.