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It’s the nature of political campaigns for candidates to find themselves greeted at public appearances by largely sympathetic crowds.

But during a visit to St. Mary’s College of Maryland last week, U.S. Senate candidate Dan Bongino was instead treated to a series of earnest inquiries from political science students eager to challenge his positions on issues.

Not that Bongino minded the questions, which covered everything from the national debt and defense spending to education and homeland security.

“I always like college campuses and I enjoy the hard questions,” Bongino said, adding that it was “very rare to get a completely out-of-left-field question” after 16 months on the campaign trail.

“I find that college students are really in that very inquisitive part of their lives, but their views aren’t calcified, so they’re open to new ideas,” he said. “Unfortunately as adults, I find our opinions are a little harder to change.”

After speaking to a political science class Sept. 26, Bongino, a Republican from Severna Park, huddled with some students, professors and community members during an hourlong meet-and-greet at the college’s James P. Muldoon River Center.

For the students, it was a chance to informally meet and observe a candidate’s behavior rather than just study their methods in a textbook, said Michael Cain, director of the college’s Center for the Study of Democracy.

“Not everything that’s worth learning can be taught in a classroom,” Cain said. “I think this not only gives them confidence but also a connection to act on their political interests.”

As for the hard questioning, “I think we expect that,” Cain added. “We want them to respectfully challenge the candidates. This is a higher education institution, so we expect them to ask tough questions.”

One issue that dominated the conversation for a time was Bongino’s support of school choice in public education.

He argued that Maryland’s public schools are not compelled to excel because parents have no options as to where to send their children, whereas private schools are forced to compete with one another.

“Economics explains almost everything in life,” he said. “Economics creates incentives. If you ignore them, you’re living in a fantasy land.”

An ex-Secret Service agent who quit his job to challenge U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Bongino reasoned that government ignores basic economics by overpaying certain positions and underpaying others, and offered his $150,000 salary with the Secret Service as an example.

“I’m not worth that salary because someone could do it for less,” he said.

As for teachers, “they’re only the foundation for our entire society. I think six-figure salaries should be the floor,” he added.

One student, who said he graduated from Baltimore public schools, said private school students enjoy smaller class sizes and nicer textbooks, but the candidate disagreed, claiming that parents’ ability to choose a specific school was the “only difference” between public and private education.

“Not all parents can make that choice,” another student said.

The discussion might have gone on had Cain not reminded the students that they had classes to attend and Bongino that he had other campaign stops to make.

“Would you come in and substitute teach?” Cain asked.

If polling data proves accurate, Bongino might have more time on his hands than he would like following the Nov. 6 election.

In a recent poll conducted by Annapolis firm Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies, 50 percent said they would vote for Cardin while 22 percent supported Bongino, likely the result of an upstart and largely self-funded campaign from independent candidate Rob Sobhani, whose television ads have flooded the airwaves in recent weeks.

The poll showed Sobhani running a close third behind Bongino, with 21 percent support.

While the poll showed Cardin with a comfortable lead over his opponents, it also had him receiving less support than his party’s 2-to-1 share of the state’s voter registration.

“To be an incumbent and to be polling at 50 percent is not necessarily a good thing and it’s certainly not a good thing to be an incumbent and polling at 50 percent in one of the bluest of the blue states,” St. Mary’s College political science professor Todd Eberly said.

For Eberly, the poll confirms his suspicions that “Cardin is vulnerable, but because you have Bongino and Sobhani splitting the vote, he’s in absolutely no danger. So long as both of them stay in the race, it’s going to be that way.”

The poll also shows Cardin with relatively weak support among black voters. Whereas 88 percent of African-Americans polled said they would vote for President Obama, 71 percent supported Cardin.

Eberly believes that Cardin’s showing among black voters could be a byproduct of his two Senate primary campaigns, both of which came against black candidates — this year against state Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s) and in 2006 against former congressman Kweisi Mfume.

“He may just be the most obvious recipient of that frustration because he’s run twice in a primary against an African-American opponent,” Eberly said.

The poll also indicates that Sobhani is the preferred alternative to Cardin among unaffiliated voters — Sobhani polled 38 percent among independents, just behind Cardin’s 39 percent but well ahead of Bongino’s 10 percent.

“I think for people who are annoyed by the two major political parties, this notion of independence has some appeal to it,” Eberly said.

Cain believes Bongino’s chances of winning are reflected in his lack of support from national Republican organizations. As of June 30, Bongino’s campaign had raised more than $444,000, nearly all of it from individuals. His campaign finance reports show zero contributions from Republican Party committees, though he has received small donations from other candidates.

“That some big national Republican groups have not been all in suggests that they have some concerns over whether he can beat a well-known incumbent Democrat,” Cain said. “Given the Democratic-Republican imbalance in the state with respect to registration, I can’t imagine him being able to overcome that threshold. That’s really a big hurdle for any candidate to overcome, and for one without a lot of financial support, perhaps impossible.”

Eberly said the state’s voter registration discourages the Republican Party from investing in Maryland races.

“If you’re the National Republican Senatorial Committee and you’re looking for where to spend your money, Maryland isn’t your first thought,” he said.

jnewman@somdnews.com