By Matthew Mosk and Claudia Deane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 2, 2006; A01
Former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume leads U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin in what is shaping up to be a racially polarized Democratic Senate primary in Maryland, even as roughly a third of the electorate has not settled on a candidate, according to a new Washington Post poll.
For the first time in Maryland history, both major parties have the potential to nominate an African American, and the poll suggests that the hopes of all of the major candidates will depend on their ability to cross racial boundaries for support.
As they stand, the racial divisions are stark: In the primary, Mfume, who is black, gets 72 percent of his support from black voters, the poll shows. Cardin, who is white, gets 82 percent of his backing from white voters.
Then there is Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who has brought national attention to the Senate campaign because he is one of a handful of African American Republicans whom the national party is counting on to establish credibility among black voters.
Both Democrats hold leads over Steele in potential general election matchups, although Mfume's is narrow, the poll shows. And again, skin color appears to exert a significant tug.
For instance, if Cardin wins the Democratic primary, the poll shows that nearly a quarter of all black voters would back Steele. If Mfume wins the primary, black voters would stay with the Democratic Party, but Steele would see a nine-point jump in his support from white voters.
Lee Parker, a 35-year-old from Prince George's County who works for a charitable foundation, was one of several black Democrats who said they would consider voting for Steele if Mfume loses. "I like his stance on economic empowerment and particularly on the role he sees for social services in the community," Parker said. "Those are two things that resonated with me."
In the past year, Mfume and Cardin have emerged from the half-dozen Democratic candidates vying for the seat being vacated by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D), with Cardin remaining a quiet but consistent front-runner in fundraising and early polls.
The Post's survey, conducted June 19 to 25, shows Mfume ahead by six points among registered voters, 31 to 25 percent, with 32 percent saying they don't know whom they're backing. The remaining respondents were split among other candidates.
"I still consider myself running from behind," Mfume said yesterday. "As I've run this campaign for almost a year and a half, we've always been considered the underdog. We didn't have the same amount of money or the blessing of the party. We're still trying to reach the ears of the voters."
Cardin said his own polls, including one taken at the same time as the Post's poll, show him leading Mfume and Steele by double digits. "We expected during the course of the campaign to see polls that would have us up and down," he said yesterday.
The Post's telephone poll was conducted among 902 registered voters, including 494 registered Democrats, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. The margin is four points for questions about the Democratic primary.Candidates' Obstacles
Cardin, a 10-term congressman from Baltimore, trails Mfume in part because nearly half of Maryland's registered voters say they don't know who he is. In Prince George's and Montgomery counties, the poll shows, 66 percent of voters have no opinion of him.
But the many racial crosscurrents have become the most vexing reality for all three campaigns as they design their strategies for the fall, aides and political analysts said last week.
For the moment, Cardin and Mfume are trying to maneuver through a potentially divisive Sept. 12 primary and then into an eight-week general election clash with a well-funded Republican who is known to three-quarters of the state's voters.
The biggest challenge for Cardin is becoming better known in the Washington suburbs without angering Mfume's supporters, said Chuck Todd, editor of the Hotline, a political newsletter.
"They are running a very, very quiet campaign," Todd said, adding that he believes Cardin is "running in fear" of upsetting Mfume supporters, whom he will need to win over if he prevails in the primary.
That job has been made more difficult by Steele, who has reminded voters at every turn that many in the Democratic Party establishment fell in behind Cardin early.
When a reporter questioned Steele recently about his ties to President Bush, he replied, "I'm sure Kweisi Mfume would like to have the support of his party's leaders in Washington."
Steele has a clear motive to meddle in the Democratic primary, said Thomas Schaller, a University of Maryland Baltimore County political science professor who is supporting Cardin. The poll shows that Cardin holds a 10-point lead over Steele in a general election matchup, while Mfume leads Steele by three points among registered voters. Mfume and Steele are tied among likely voters at 46 percent.
And if Steele faces Cardin, the poll shows, he would take nearly a quarter of the black vote.
"It's encouraging to us," said Doug Heye, Steele's campaign spokesman. "Obviously, it shows the attacks the Democrats have made repeatedly on race have been unsuccessful."
Cardin said that at this stage of the campaign, if he appears quiet it's because he has been focused on gathering endorsements, raising money and building a network of supporters to help him on election day.
"We opened up field offices in Montgomery and Prince George's. We have full campaign operations there," Cardin said. "We have the structure in place. Now is the time people are going to start focusing on the race."
Cardin has not been advertising on television, but he made a $680,000 down payment to reserve airtime in the Washington and Baltimore television markets for the two weeks leading up to the primary.
Where Cardin does hold a significant advantage is in the race for dollars. As of April, he had raised $3.6 million -- nearly seven times as much as Mfume's $520,000. Steele had raised $2.4 million.
Beyond money, Mfume's challenge will be to gain a bigger share of the Democratic vote, particularly among whites, said David Bositis, who studies black voting patterns for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
"Even with his lead, he's still at least 10 points from where he needs to be to win the primary," Bositis said. "And most of the undecided voters are white."
Mfume said he is not "running around as the black candidate. I'm running as the candidate for all of the state. There are communities where I may not know people, but I go there reaching out."
For his part, Steele must find a way to draw support from more blacks to win in a state where Democrats hold a nearly 2-to-1 advantage in voter registration. And he must maintain the backing of a national GOP establishment that is not playing well with black voters.Opposition to Bush
Although black Marylanders have largely the same priorities as whites -- education and crime rank as the top issues regardless of race -- African Americans show a staggering distaste for the war in Iraq and for Bush, according to the poll.
When asked whether the war has been worth fighting, nearly nine in 10 blacks answered no, and the vast majority registered their opposition "strongly." White voters were evenly split on the war.
Even more stark is the antipathy black voters in Maryland feel for the president. Four percent strongly approve of the job Bush is doing, while 75 percent said they strongly disapprove.
Steele has quietly voiced support for the war and Bush but has worked to avoid both subjects. The issues page on his campaign Web site, for instance, lays out his position on eight topics, including "innovation in agriculture" but not Iraq.
There is one issue on which the views of black voters and conservative Republicans coincide: same-sex marriage.
Nearly two-thirds of African Americans in the state oppose both same-sex marriage and civil unions for gay couples, the poll shows. By contrast, 57 percent of white voters favored civil unions. On the question of same-sex marriage, 44 percent of white voters favored it, while 53 percent were opposed.
Bositis said he did not expect Steele to make too much of the issue, though, because by doing so "he would risk associating himself with the same conservatives that he has to distance himself from."
The risk of Steele being tied too closely to Bush is considerable: Seventy-nine percent of black voters in the poll said they would be less likely to support a candidate who had Bush's backing.
Hans Kaiser, a pollster with the national Republican firm Moore Information, said that number is "obviously not a plus" for Steele. But he said Steele has been wise to try to steer the campaign to issues that play better with his potential supporters.
"If the campaign is only about George Bush supporting a candidate, that number would be alarming," Kaiser said. "But there are a whole lot of other things being discussed in the campaign."
Staff writer Richard Morin contributed to this report.