Cardin, Mfume in Senate tossup

With the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate less than two months away, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and former congressman and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume remain locked in a virtual tie, according to a new Sun poll.

If the primary were held today, the survey finds, each candidate would get about three out of 10 votes.

More than a third of the state's Democrats haven't decided on a candidate to face probable Republican nominee Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele in the general election for the rare open seat - a huge bloc of voters that remains unmoved from a Sun survey conducted eight months ago.

The indecision increases to 45 percent of Democrats in the heavily populated Washington suburbs, and 55 percent in Western Maryland, regions where the Baltimore-based front-runners are largely unknown.

"There's a lot of work both candidates have to do between now and Sept. 12," said Salisbury University political scientist Harry Basehart, co-director of the Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement. "There are still plenty of undecided voters to go after."

Opinions are stronger in the general election that will determine a successor to Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. The longest-serving senator in Maryland history is retiring after 30 years, leaving the state an open seat for the first time since 1986.

Cardin leads Steele, 47 percent to 36 percent, in the race for Sarbanes' seat, according to the telephone survey of 1,200 likely voters conducted July 6-10 by Potomac Inc., an independent polling company based in Bethesda. Seventeen percent are undecided. The survey has a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points for the general election and 4.1 percentage points for the primary. The error rate is higher for smaller subgroups.

Mfume leads Steele, 42 percent to 40 percent, with 18 percent undecided. The 2-percentage-point difference falls within the poll's margin of error, leaving the race in a virtual dead heat.

An Mfume-Steele race would be the first in state history between two African-American candidates for the U.S. Senate. Among white voters, Steele leads Mfume, 48 percent to 33 percent. Among African-American voters, Mfume leads Steele, 71 percent to 11 percent.

Ronald Walters, a professor of politics and government at the University of Maryland, says the matchup would be "something of a tossup."

"With Mfume in, to some extent, race is neutralized," said Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. "And you're talking about two people who both have high profiles, both well-liked, both not perfect candidates. ... There are a lot of people that are going to come out of the woodwork to vote."

Potomac Inc. President Keith Haller warns against underestimating Steele, who was encouraged to enter the race by President Bush and other top Republicans and who has become a national symbol of GOP inclusiveness and outreach.

Haller says the Republican, who does not face a significant primary challenge, has been "biding his time" while Cardin and Mfume have emerged as the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination.

"He's locking up his natural base," said Haller, who is also chief executive officer of the independent, nonpartisan firm that conducted the survey for The Sun. "Obviously, he's going to have the resources to mount a phenomenally aggressive campaign."

In the Democratic Senate primary, Cardin leads Mfume, 32 percent to 28 percent. The 4-percentage-point spread lies within the margin of error, making that contest, too, a virtual tie.

Thirty-six percent of Democratic primary voters are undecided.

Democrats were asked to choose among six most frequently mentioned candidates for the party's Senate nomination, with the order of the names rotated so as not to favor any individual. Baltimore activist A. Robert Kaufman, American University history professor Allan J. Lichtman, former Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen and businessman and philanthropist Joshua B. Rales each managed about 1 percent support.

Eighteen Democratic candidates have filed to run for the seat, along with 10 Republicans and one Green Party candidate, Kevin Zeese, according to the state Board of Elections.

The numbers are virtually unchanged from those of a survey conducted by Potomac for The Sun last November, when Cardin led Mfume 30 percent to 28 percent, with 36 percent undecided.

John N. Bambacus, a professor emeritus of political science at Frostburg State University, said the numbers reflect a lack of public awareness.

"The political insiders discuss this race all the time, but the average citizen out there I just do not believe is focused on this primary," said Bambacus, a Republican who is a former mayor of Frostburg and state senator. "Most people ... really begin to get involved toward Labor Day."

Cardin, a 10-term congressman who lives in Baltimore County and represents Maryland's 3rd District, leads Mfume among white voters, 41 percent to 14 percent; among those 65 and older, 33 percent to 21 percent; and among those who frequently vote in primaries, 34 percent to 26 percent.

Ann Cherry, a 66-year-old writer from Baltimore, says Cardin has "really been tested."

"Cardin has a wonderful record," said Cherry, who said she was particularly interested in protecting the environment. "He's been very reliable, sensible ... he's a good man."

Mfume, a former five-term Baltimore congressman and past president and chief executive officer of the NAACP, leads Cardin among African-American voters, 57 percent to 12 percent. He leads among voters under 35, 39 to 17 percent; and among occasional primary voters, 32 percent to 23 percent.

"I look at Mfume as someone who has actually stood up for something. He has stood up for social justice," said Paul Yelder, 46, of Columbia, who said he was concerned about foreign policy and domestic spending priorities. "He's a strong leader. He sticks to his principles."

Cardin is running ahead of Mfume in Baltimore, Ann Arundel and Howard counties. Mfume leads Cardin in Prince George's County. Baltimore City is a tossup.

Combining the "Big Three" heavily Democratic jurisdictions of Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince George's County, Mfume leads, 35 percent to 21 percent. In the rest of Maryland, Cardin leads, 40 to 20 percent.

"If you were writing a script for a Hollywood production, you could not create a closer election," said Haller, the pollster. "You have one candidate [Cardin] with a broad, soft base and the second [Mfume] with a narrow but intensely loyal base. And you have other players out there wanting to get into the act - not one of them yet taking hold, but you could see that happening in Act Three of the production."

Cardin holds a 13-to-1 advantage over Mfume in available campaign money. His campaign reported collecting more than $925,000 from April through June, giving him $2.3 million in cash on hand. The total does not include the $680,000 down payment he has made for television time in Baltimore and Washington in the fall.

Mfume's campaign, meanwhile, reported raising $135,000 in the second quarter, for a total of $171,000 in cash on hand.

Steele's campaign reported raising $1.8 million over the same period, giving him $3 million in available cash.

"The Republican Party and the White House have decided to nationalize this race and to put serious money into it, because they want to make inroads into the state of Maryland," said Walters of the University of Maryland. "If Mfume won the primary, I'm sure the Democratic Party would try to match it."

Mfume leads Steele among women, frequent voters, self-described moderates and those with at least some post-college education. Steele leads Mfume among men, occasional voters and those holding a high school diploma or less.

Mfume leads in Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Steele leads in Anne Arundel County, and in the state, outside of the Big Three.

Laura Jessup, a 59-year-old registered nurse from Prince Frederick, says Steele is "someone to try and emulate."

"He's not afraid of confrontation on the political playground," said Jessup, who participates in the Republican Women Leaders of Calvert County. "I think Michael Steele will be pro-defense of the United States. I think he is the right man at the right time."

In a matchup between Cardin and Steele, Cardin leads among men and women, whites and African-Americans, self-described moderates, frequent voters and those with a college degree or post-college education.

Cardin leads Steele in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Steele leads Cardin in Anne Arundel County.

While Steele lags Cardin by 11 percentage points overall, Haller said his candidacy remained strong.

"There's a lot of popularity there," he said. "He will accrue the natural Republican conservative base. He stands to pick up a substantial African-American vote should he run against Cardin, as large as we've seen in some time. That can create topsy-turvy political circumstances come the general election."

Bambacus warns that the Senate race remains volatile.

"Things in the Middle East are certainly not good," he said. "And you look at North Korea, you look at Iran and Syria and so forth, and what's happening again with Israel, and all of these factors ... may play a role."