Several Republican candidates have begun to chip away at U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes' commanding lead in the Maryland Senate race, but they still remain unknown to most voters, according to a poll released yesterday.
The poll found the three major Republican challengers narrowing the lead of Mr. Sarbanes, a Democrat, in the last month by anywhere from 6 to 12 percentage points.
The poll was conducted July 15 to July 17 by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research in Columbia for The Sun and other news media organizations.
While Mr. Sarbanes still leads his closest competitor -- Montgomery County developer Ruthann Aron -- by 20 percentage points, the GOP candidates and some political analysts cited yesterday's poll results as continued evidence of the senator's vulnerability.
Mason-Dixon President Brad Coker said the Republican gains were probably due largely to anti-Sarbanes sentiment. He also said the senator's name recognition -- with an unfavorable rating of 26 percent -- remained relatively mixed for a three-term incumbent.
Herb Smith, a professor of political science at Western Maryland College, saw the results as generally good news for the GOP, too.
"If I was a Republican strategist, I'd be very happy with those numbers," said Mr. Smith. "Paul is not walking away with it."
Mr. Coker warned, though, that the Republican candidates had yet to make much of an impression on voters. "It remains to be seen if any of them can exploit Sarbanes' weaknesses," he said.
Mr. Sarbanes' aides said yesterday that they were unconcerned by the poll results and dismissed questions of vulnerability as they have in years past.
"With a very substantial lead over each of his potential general election opponents, it is quite clear that Marylanders appreciate the . . . leadership that Senator Sarbanes brings to the people of our state," said campaign coordinator Matthew Erickson in a prepared statement.
Specifically, yesterday's poll found that Mr. Sarbanes would beat Ms. Aron 49 percent to 29 percent, compared with 50 percent to 22 percent in June.
Against former Tennessee Sen. Bill Brock, a Republican, Mr. Sarbanes would win 50 percent to 27 percent, a narrowing of June's margin of 52 percent to 23 percent.
Competing with state Del. C. Ronald Franks, Mr. Sarbanes would win 49 percent to 27 percent compared with 53 percent to 19 percent in June.
The poll's margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The Republican primary remains wide open, the poll found.
Currently, Mr. Brock leads with 18 percent, followed by Ms. Aron with 13 percent and Mr. Franks at 9 percent. Perennial political candidate Ross Z. Pierpont brought up the rear with 6 percent.
The poll, based on interviews with 839 registered voters, showed that 59 percent had never heard of any of the three leading GOP candidates. And at least half of the Republicans likely to vote in the primary remain undecided.
Mr. Brock, a millionaire and prominent figure in the national Republican party, leads the field with 41 percent name recognition. His rivals criticized his campaign yesterday for being unable to raise his profile more after outspending them in the second quarter of this year by a ratio of more than 2-to-1.
"If you believe the typical pundits -- that money decides a race -- Bill Brock should be overwhelmingly winning," said Mr. Franks.
Steve Watson, Mr. Brock's campaign manager, dismissed the criticism, saying that the campaign had worked to build a state-wide organization that will pay dividends in the long run.
"Monday morning quarterbacks usually don't win campaigns," he said.
Yesterday's poll also focused on the contest for Maryland attorney general, finding that Republican candidate Richard D. Bennett had made inroads in the last month against incumbent J. Joseph Curran Jr. Mr. Curran now leads Mr. Bennett 39 percent to 19 percent, down from his showing in June of 44 percent to 11 percent.
"These things are largely a function of name ID," said Dick Leggitt, Mr. Bennett's campaign director. "Curran has been developing name ID for 35 years as an elected state official and look at where he is."
Robin Pressman, Mr. Curran's campaign manager, said the candidate would be working to educate more voters about his record in the coming months. Regarding yesterday's results, Ms. Pressman said: "Still, Joe Curran has a huge lead."
Mr. Curran faces a strong challenge in the Democratic primary from former Deputy Attorney General Eleanor M. Carey, whom he led in yesterday's poll by 36 percent to 14 percent.