Former Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich and Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin debated the merits of each party’s presidential nominees Monday night before a packed house of 900 people at an event sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council in Pikesville. 

Ehrlich said Arizona Sen. John McCain “has never been a safe politician, but safe is boring, safe is not leadership.”

He said McCain is in an “opponent of status quo spending” who would end congressional earmarks. He called McCain “a proven tax cutter,” who would give tax rebates to 40 percent of taxpayers, and “a proven watchdog of the U.S. Treasury.” He is also “a proven free trader” and an advocate of energy independence “willing to drill” for oil in the U.S.

Cardin emphasized those areas where “Sen. Obama disagrees with Sen. McCain’s support of President Bush’s” policies – on taxes and the economy, energy policy and health care, and particularly on Iraq.

Obama “will bring our troops home from Iraq,” Cardin said. “He will restore America’s international leadership” in the world, using the tools of diplomacy before he resorts to military power. Cardin said Obama would fight government abuse of the Constitution, fight for the separation of church and state – a major applause line for the predominately Jewish crowd – and support a woman’s right to choose an abortion or not, while appointing Supreme Court justices that will uphold the Constitution.

The two men tried to outdo each other with their candidates’ support for Israel, its right to exist and defend itself, and for their willingness to restrain Iran and its nuclear program, which might be targeted against Israel. But Ehrlich took Obama to task for waffling on Israel and Iran.

Obama’s “first instinct is always appeasement,” Ehrlich said.

Cardin challenged McCain poor judgment in support of the Iraq war, in which “we haven’t succeeded” despite claims to the contrary, contrasting it with Obama’s long standing opposition to the war. He also questioned McCain’s judgment on choosing a running mate, saying Obama had chosen someone “fully prepared to be the next president of the United States.”

Ehrlich urged his audience to “check [Obama’s] views during the primary and check his latest statements, and then draw your own conclusions.” He suggested that he has shifted stands on a dozen issues, from public financing of his campaign and negotiating trade treaties, to the D.C. gun ban, late term abortions and the embargo against Cuba.

The crowd applauded Cardin and Obama more often than Ehrlich and McCain, but Rabbi Ronald Shulman of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, who hosted the debate, told the Examiner that there was probably more support for the Republican than was apparent from audience reaction. He suspected the crowd was split about 60-40 for Obama over McCain.

“There is genuine support for McCain in the Jewish community,” Shulman said.

Martha Weiman, first vice president of the Baltimore Jewish Council who helped question the surrogates, said the turnout “shows the interest in this election.”

Both Ehrlich and Cardin “handled themselves well. It was a marvelous evening.”