Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has taken a solid -- though not insurmountable -- lead in his bid for a third term over City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, according to a poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research for The Sun and WMAR-TV Channel 2.
Even though a majority of those surveyed believe life in Baltimore is deteriorating, they still favored Mr. Schmoke by a 15-point margin over his rival in the race for mayor, the poll showed.
The poll of 409 likely Democratic primary voters showed Mr. Schmoke with 47 percent; Mrs. Clarke with 32 percent and 20 percent undecided. The poll, taken Wednesday and Thursday, selected respondents at random and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
"Schmoke is the percentage bet, but by no means is this election over," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor and polling expert at Western Maryland College.
To win a narrow victory, Mrs. Clarke would have to capture virtually all of the undecided votes. It would be a difficult feat, but undecided voters generally support challengers over incumbents, Mr. Smith said.
The results of the first poll for the Sept. 12 primary not commissioned by either candidate reveal a deep racial split in the city electorate.
Black voters overwhelmingly supported Mr. Schmoke, the city's
first elected African-American mayor, who has always run strong in the black community. They gave him 72 percent of the vote compared with 13 percent for Mrs. Clarke. Fifteen percent of black voters interviewed said they had not yet decided.
White voters, by contrast, backed Mrs. Clarke by a significant but not equally wide margin. The two-term council president, bidding to become the city's first female mayor, had the backing of 57 percent of white voters, compared with 16 percent for Mr. Schmoke. However, more than a quarter of white voters polled said they were still undecided.
About 55 percent of those voting in city elections are black, according to pollsters and political analysts. Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 9-1 ratio, making victory in the Democratic primary nearly tantamount to election.
Mr. Schmoke and Mrs. Clarke downplayed the importance of the poll results, noting that almost two months remain until the election. Both mentioned the 1987 election, when polls showed Mr. Schmoke with a commanding 29-point lead over incumbent Mayor Clarence H. "Du" Burns in July, yet election returns gave Mr. Schmoke a narrow, three-point victory.
While calling the poll results "encouraging," Mr. Schmoke said, "I thought going into this campaign it was going to be very competitive. I still think that. That's why I'm working hard in getting people registered and making sure they turn out."
For her part, Mrs. Clarke said: "My sense is we're a lot closer. But we always knew we had to work hard because we're taking on a two-term incumbent. . . . One of the things we know is that polls don't vote."
In the race to succeed Mrs. Clarke as council president, the poll showed a virtual dead heat among council members Lawrence A. Bell III, Joseph J. DiBlasi, Vera P. Hall and Carl Stokes. Nearly two of five voters said they were undecided.
In another indication of the electorate's racial divide, Mr. DiBlasi, the lone white candidate, had the support of just 1 percent of black voters. At the same time, none of the other candidates had the backing of more than 7 percent of the white voters.
'A real racial split'
This year's Democratic primary marks the first in which the two leading contenders for mayor are of different races since 1983, when then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer decisively beat flamboyant lawyer and former Circuit Court Judge William H. Murphy Jr. It is also the first time three equally known African-American candidates are vying for the council presidency.
"It's pretty obvious that we're seeing a real racial split in this election," said J. Bradford Coker, president of Mason-Dixon.
The contest for comptroller has former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides leading certified public accountant Joan M. Pratt by a 3-1 ratio, with 51 percent of voters undecided, according to the poll.
The poll asked voters whether life in Baltimore was better under Mr. Schaefer or Mr. Schmoke, and whether conditions in the city were improving, worsening or unchanged.
XTC Forty-six percent said life was better under Mr. Schaefer, 15 percent said it was better under Mr. Schmoke, 24 percent said it was about the same and 15 percent said they weren't sure.
Few see improved life in city
A clear majority -- 57 percent -- said that overall, life in the city was deteriorating, with only 8 percent saying it was improving. The rest felt it was the same.
An even greater percentage -- two out of three -- called crime and drugs the city's most pressing problem. The next closest category was education, at 12 percent.
Unlike the reponses to candidate preferences, the answers to what is the city's most important issue cut across racial lines. Sixty-two percent of whites and 68 percent of blacks put crime and drugs on top.
Despite believing that Baltimore has declined during Mr. Schmoke's tenure, a majority of those surveyed -- 54 percent -- said he was doing a "good" or "excellent" job as mayor. Only 13 percent gave him a "poor" assessment.
Mrs. Clarke had somewhat better numbers for her job as council president, with 61 percent rating her performance as "good" or ++ "excellent" and only 1 percent as "poor."
"The public generally sees the helplessness of running an urban center," said Arthur W. Murphy, a political consultant who is working for Mrs. Hall and Mr. Lapides.
Mr. Schmoke has repeatedly stressed that many problems facing the city are the result of nationwide trends beyond his control, ranging from the dissolution of families to corporate layoffs.
"People understand that the mayor can do some things. He can't do everything," Mr. Schmoke said.
Mrs. Clarke has hit hard on Baltimore's woes under Mr. Schmoke, including a 41 percent rise in major crimes and the loss of more than 60,000 jobs.
"We have to link leadership with the state of the city because that's the fact," she said.
Both candidates drew more support from men than women, according to the poll.
Mr. Schmoke had the backing of 51 percent of the men surveyed and 44 percent of the women; Mrs. Clarke, 35 percent of the men and 29 percent of the women. Thirteen percent of men and 26 percent of women were undecided.
Among those polled who said they would vote for Mr. Schmoke was James Peyton, a federal worker who lives near Chinquapin Park in Northeast Baltimore.
"It appears that he's at least trying to come up with some solutions," Mr. Peyton, who is black, said yesterday.
And among those who said they supported Mrs. Clarke was Margaret Vinson, a 45-year resident of Hamilton, also in Northeast.
"I feel, 'Give her a chance.' Schmoke hasn't done too much," said Ms. Vinson, who is white.