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Edwards takes lead in U.S. Senate race, Sun/UB poll finds

Edwards leads with women, African Americans and in the Baltimore region in new Senate poll.

Rep. Donna F. Edwards, long seen as an underdog in the race for Maryland's open U.S. Senate seat, now has a slight lead and is winning among several critical Democratic constituencies, a new poll for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore shows.

The Prince George's County Democrat has opened a significant margin among women, African-Americans and voters in the Baltimore region, considered the most important battleground in the contest to replace retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

When respondents were asked to consider the entire field of 10 candidates, many of whom have not campaigned, 34 percent of likely Democratic primary voters supported Edwards and 28 percent Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County. When respondents' choices were limited to those two, Edwards' lead grew to 10 percentage points.

The numbers have the potential to rewrite the conventional wisdom in the race, which loosely mirrors the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination in that it pits a veteran political figure, Van Hollen, against a self-proclaimed outsider, Edwards. Van Hollen has raised far more money and has a significantly longer list of endorsements.

"He still has a great opportunity, but she's now changed the dynamics of the race," said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the Annapolis-based firm that conducted the poll. "She's come up to Baltimore and she's established herself here."

The race for the Republican Senate nomination remains wide open, with more than three-fourths of likely GOP primary voters still undecided. Del. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County has a narrow edge with support from 6 percent of those polled.

Van Hollen, 57, has a better than 10-to-1 cash advantage over Edwards, but a super PAC supporting her campaign is working to neutralize the impact of that money. The group, associated with Washington-based Emily's List, has pumped $1.4 million into advertising on her behalf and has committed to $1 million more. Much of that money is being spent on television ads in Baltimore.

Van Hollen's campaign was not airing ads for much of the time the poll was being conducted, from March 4 to March 8. He went back on the air midweek last week with a new 30-second ad noting his recent endorsement from The Washington Post. The Baltimore Sun has not endorsed a candidate.

The Sun/UB poll has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.

Edwards, 57, has greatly improved her showing since the last Sun/UB poll, conducted in November, when Van Hollen had a double-digit advantage. Three opinion surveys since then by other organizations have found the race to be a tossup.

Edwards, who has represented the 4th Congressional District since 2008, has made up ground with women, a demographic she was losing in November but is now winning by 16 points. In the Baltimore region, Edwards and Van Hollen have flipped positions. Last fall, he was leading in the region, with support from 49 percent of its likely Democratic voters; now she is ahead with 48 percent.

As in past polls, Van Hollen received strong support in his home base of Montgomery County and Edwards in Prince George's County. That has left the vote-rich Baltimore region, where neither candidate is as well known, as the top geographic target of both campaigns.

Poll results have varied widely, and support appears to have shifted relatively quickly a number of times after an advertising blitz. That suggests that voters are somewhat uncertain who should succeed Mikulski, a Baltimore Democrat who has been re-elected by wide margins since 1986.

"We don't know how firm the Edwards numbers are because this movement is so dramatic and it's so recent," Raabe said.

Mikulski shocked political observers when she announced last year that she would not seek a sixth term. Her departure set off speculation about who would run for the rare, coveted open seat. Van Hollen, who has represented the state's 8th Congressional District since 2003, and Edwards entered the race within days of Mikulski's announcement.

Edwards and Van Hollen hold broadly similar views on issues important to their party. Each supports stronger gun control, tougher environmental regulations and closer regulation of Wall Street. Each represents a Maryland suburb of Washington and is considered a liberal in their caucus.

But they have conveyed vastly different personal styles to voters. Edwards has cast herself as an outsider and has touted the historic significance of her potential election. She would be the first African-American to represent Maryland in the U.S. Senate. She argues that it is important to have her perspective represented in an institution made up mostly of white men.

Van Hollen, taking a page from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, often speaks of a record of "getting things done," suggesting he is a pragmatist who has built relationships that would make it easier to accomplish an agenda. Van Hollen has received endorsements from more of the state's prominent women and black elected officials.

Edwards "is not going to be beholden to these PACs once she gets in office; her loyalty will lie with the people of Maryland," said Michelle Thomas, 45, an attorney who lives in Baltimore County. "I like my representatives to be more representatives of the people."

But Elizabeth Sinclair, a 52-year-old government contractor from Montgomery County, says she has watched Van Hollen closely as her congressman for years and he has consistently supported the liberal politics that are in favor there.

"He has been a good egg," said Sinclair, who described herself as a progressive. "He is someone who has managed to play in the sandbox with others and he's managed to get things done."

As in past Maryland races, black turnout is almost certain to be a key factor in the primary elections — and one that is nearly impossible to predict because it has fluctuated widely. About 40 percent of Maryland's Democratic primary turnout in 2008 was African-American, the year Barack Obama was running to become the nation's first black president.

A drawn-out fight for the Democratic presidential nomination between Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders could spark added interest in the race, as could the competitive mayoral election in Baltimore.

The Sun/UB poll assumes that black voters will make up about 39 percent of the electorate.

Edwards is leading Van Hollen among African-Americans, 67 percent to 16 percent, according to the poll. Edwards had an advantage among black voters in the November poll, but it was not nearly so pronounced.

"It's a major change in the race," said Roger E. Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore. "To have Edwards, who is less known, building up that much support so quickly is a big deal."

A Van Hollen spokeswoman, Bridgett Frey, said in a statement that the poll was "simply off" and said it was inconsistent with other recent polls. In a statement, Frey said that "the people of Maryland are not going to allow a super PAC funded by outside millionaires to buy an election for Edwards."

Benjamin Gerdes, an Edwards spokesman, said the poll demonstrated that "Donna has the clear momentum in this race because she's championing the values of Maryland's working families and taking on the Washington special interests."

Nearly one-third of the poll respondents were undecided when given the full slate of candidates to consider. The number of undecideds dropped to 16 percent when respondents were asked only about Edwards and Van Hollen.

Don Barto Jr. of Elkridge is one of those who has yet to make up his mind. The 45-year-old small-business owner is supporting Sanders in the presidential race and said he is looking for a Senate candidate who embodies the same spirit of supporting fundamental change.

"I'm waiting to hear from the candidate who I can vote for because they'll take us in that direction, because I think it's needed," Barto said. "I keep an eye on candidates who make some noise."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

About the poll

Results are based on a survey of 400 likely Maryland Democratic primary voters and 400 likely Maryland Republican primary voters. The poll was done by OpinionWorks of Annapolis for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore's College of Public Affairs and Schaefer Center for Public Policy. The survey was conducted by telephone, both land-based and cellular, by trained interviewers from March 4 to March 8. Voters were randomly selected for interviews from a voter file provided by the State Board of Elections. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

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