The Oct. 3 Close to Home piece "Why the White Man Won," credited to Carol Arscott, was co-written by independent pollster Patrick Gonzales. (Published 10/10/1999)

On Sept. 15, The Post ran a front-page story on the mayoral primary in Baltimore City that did a better job of widening Washington's eyes than that morning's first cup of coffee. It was a straightforward story, but it carried a jarring headline: "White Man Gets Mayoral Nomination in Baltimore."

Martin O'Malley, the "white man" in question, achieved a stunning victory, winning 53 percent of the vote in a city with a Democratic primary electorate that is 63 percent black.

E. R. Shipp called the decision to run the headline "boneheaded" [Ombudsman, Sept. 19]. Not only does The Post's stylebook state that "in general, race and ethnic background should not be mentioned unless they are clearly relevant," she wrote in her column, but O'Malley's race was, she believed, irrelevant to the election results.

As the only independent pollster tracking Baltimore's Democratic mayoral primary, I respectfully disagree. While race was not the deciding factor for a significant number of voters, it was not irrelevant or unimportant either. At a critical juncture in the primary campaign, race was, in fact, the only issue, and O'Malley had been accused of entering the contest only after he was persuaded that the black vote would be split.

Recent history and the changing demographics of Baltimore did not seem to favor an O'Malley victory. Baltimore has been bleeding population at the rate of 1,000 citizens a month, most of whom are white, and in the last mayoral election in 1995 between incumbent Kurt Schmoke and then-City Council president Mary Pat Clarke, race was used to great effect. Schmoke adopted the colors of the flag of African liberation -- black, green and red -- for his campaign signs, which read "Kurt Schmoke Makes Us Proud." Voters responded in kind, with blacks overwhelmingly choosing Schmoke, and whites lopsidedly selecting Clarke. Not surprisingly, many observers feared a replay in this election.

But from our first survey in June through our final poll three weeks before Election Day, our research found that the candidate who could cobble together the broadest biracial and cross-generational coalition would emerge the winner.

In our first survey -- with O'Malley yet to hint that he would enter the contest -- that candidate was City Council President Lawrence Bell, an African American who had run on a fusion ticket with white mayoral candidate Mary Pat Clarke in 1995. Bell enjoyed a 35 percent share of the black vote, a 31 percent share of the white vote and a 2 to 1 lead over his nearest competitor, former councilman Carl Stokes.

The election was Bell's to lose, and he did just that. After the July filing deadline, one devastating story after another appeared in the media: liens filed against him, a lawsuit demanding payment of debts, repossession of his car, a $4,000 item on his campaign report for clothing purchased at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City.

The crushing blow, however, came in early August. Bell campaign operatives staged a demonstration at an O'Malley press conference, at which O'Malley was to pick up the endorsements of several leading state legislators, including that of Howard "Pete" Rawlings, an African American and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee in Annapolis. The TV images were searing, and the audio was just as hot, with demonstrators calling Rawlings a "traitor," and Rawlings responding that Bell was "a child."

Bell's numbers slipped immediately. While he still held a narrow lead, his white support plummeted from 31 percent to 5 percent. Bell's biracial coalition disap- peared and along with it, his chance to win the election. He never recovered, earning just 17 percent of the vote on Election Day.

Carl Stokes, the other major contender, had nearly perfectly balanced support in our surveys, but no real political base upon which to build. He leapfrogged Bell to take a narrow (and brief) lead over O'Malley, 32 percent to 30 percent, in our third survey, right after he picked up valuable endorsements, including that of the Baltimore Sun and Senate Majority Leader Clarence Blount.

But Stokes made an early misstep -- overstating his educational credentials on his campaign resume -- and that was spotlighted a second time when revelations of problems with the IRS surfaced. Stokes's support dipped, then remained static; he earned 28 percent of the vote on Sept. 14.

Late entrant Martin O'Malley, a city councilman and son-in-law of Maryland Attorney General Joseph Curran, ran an inclusive, message-driven campaign. While he enjoyed overwhelming support among Baltimore's white voters, O'Malley probably had only one or 2 percent of the black vote in his own early exploratory survey; by Election Day, he had nearly one-third of black voters on his side.

According to our polls, Baltimore voters were worried about crime, drugs and urban decay, and O'Malley pounded home an anti-crime, anti-drug message. He was criticized by some for having too narrow a focus and criticized by others for advocating New York-style zero-tolerance policing, but voters responded to his message with fervor.

So, yes, the "white man" won. And in a three-way contest, and in a city with a 2 to 1 black majority, we would maintain that this was, in fact, news.

Would another headline have been more politic?

No doubt.

We would suggest "O'Malley Gets Mayoral Nomination in Baltimore." After all, the Post did run his photograph with the story, for those who bother to look at such things.

-- Carol Arscott

is an independent pollster.