Race vs. Party

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) has focused his efforts on Prince George's, where his GOP rival in the Senate race, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, is hoping that voters will look beyond party.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) has focused his efforts on Prince George's, where his GOP rival in the Senate race, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, is hoping that voters will look beyond party. (By Michael Robinson Chavez -- The Washington Post)

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By Ann E. Marimow and Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Looking out on a crowd of hundreds of fellow Democrats gathered in Upper Marlboro, retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes predicted that Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin would win his Senate seat on "a tidal wave of votes" from Prince George's County.

Cardin's Republican rival, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, is hoping to limit that to a trickle as he sets out to persuade black voters in Maryland's most reliably Democratic county to look beyond party in choosing their senator.

In a state where nearly 30 percent of residents are black, Steele and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) are trying to tap into frustration with the Democratic Party, which some African Americans believe has taken such a loyal voting bloc for granted.

That makes Prince George's a pivotal battleground in the Senate contest, where the two major party camps are marshaling volunteers and bringing in prominent surrogates to connect with voters.

Steele is using his hometown ties to the county and popular black figures, including hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and boxing promoter Don King, who brought his flamboyant style to the ticket yesterday in Largo. Cardin has rallied with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in College Park and campaigned Sunday with his party's last presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry, meeting with black business owners in Upper Marlboro.

Elected officials supporting Cardin concede that Steele is an attractive candidate who is forcing black Democrats to pause and at least consider his candidacy. Even the most high-profile party leaders have acknowledged the potential of Steele's entreaty. "We've got a fight on our hands," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.). "This is a serious challenge."

Steele, the first African American elected statewide, has the advantage of being better known in Prince George's than a congressman from Baltimore. To a person, voters interviewed last week in the county could identify Steele's signature puppy campaign commercial or come up with family trivia, such as his sister's past marriage to Mike Tyson.

But four years ago, Steele's presence on the Republican gubernatorial ticket didn't give Ehrlich the anticipated boost in Prince George's: Ehrlich received just 23 percent of the vote in Steele's home jurisdiction and took 6,000 fewer votes than the Republican nominee in 1998.

This time, Steele said he is aiming for 25 percent of the black vote statewide and seeking as much as 40 percent of the overall vote in Prince George's.

Although Democrats interviewed last week said they were intrigued by Steele, many said they would not part with their party in next month's election because of broader issues such as the Iraq war and the balance of power in Congress.

Standing outside the Largo post office last week, Ola Belle Burley, 75, said she voted for Democrat Kweisi Mfume in September's primary with the hope of sending a second African American to the U.S. Senate to join Obama. Mfume finished second to Cardin but won nearly 70 percent of the vote in Prince George's.

Between Cardin and Steele, Burley, a staunch Democrat, said that she would go with her party's ultimate choice. "I feel more comfortable with him."


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