Just how difficult will it be for Mary Pat Clarke to oust Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke? And just how vulnerable is Mr. Schmoke as he seeks a third term?
Very difficult -- and somewhat vulnerable. That is the consensus of political analysts and those who follow city elections in the wake of a poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research for The Sun and WMAR-TV Channel 2 that showed Mr. Schmoke with a solid 15-point lead.
To gain another four years in office, Mayor Schmoke, the city's first elected black mayor, has to keep and slightly increase his al- ready strong support among African-American voters, political scientists said.
To unseat the mayor and to become the first female mayor, Mrs. Clarke must siphon off some of his black support and also capture the majority of the 20 percent of undecided votes. To win those votes, Mrs. Clarke has to clearly articulate her vision for the city -- something she has yet to do, analysts said.
"I think the odds are decidedly in his favor at this moment," said Donald F. Norris, a political scien- tist at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, who has tracked elections. "What's going to be interesting to me is whether some of the criticisms of the Schmoke administration and the difficulties the city is going through will affect the votes."
"It would be very difficult for her," agreed Matthew A. Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "To turn out an incumbent, you have to mobilize enormous turnout. That's the big question for him as well -- what the turnout will be."
The poll showed Mr. Schmoke with 47 percent; Mrs. Clarke with 32 percent and 20 percent undecided. It randomly sampled 409 voters likely to cast a ballot in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary and had a 4.9 percent margin of error.
Among black voters, Mr. Schmoke had 72 percent support, compared with 13 percent for Mrs. Clarke and 15 percent undecided. Among white voters, Mrs. Clarke had 57 percent support, compared with 16 percent for Mr. Schmoke and 26 percent undecided.
Even though 57 percent of those surveyed said life in Baltimore was deteriorating, 54 percent rated Mr. Schmoke's performance mayor as "good" or "excellent."
Several of those polled said in interviews that they had made up their minds and would not be easily dissuaded by either candidate. That means Mrs. Clarke, a two-term council president, would have to persuade nine of 10 of the undecided voters to support her, while Mr. Schmoke would need only three out of 10.
Of those who said they are unsure about either candidate, 60 percent were white and 40 percent were African-American.
One of the undecided voters was Lawrence Scott, a white resident of Highlandtown in East Baltimore, who was not enthusiastic about either candidate. "I'm really on the fence," he said. "I just wish someone else was running."
Another was Betty Wilson, a black resident of Evergreen in West Baltimore, who gave high marks to both. "I think Mary Pat Clarke has been quite effective, especially in black areas," she said. "I also think Mayor Schmoke has been effective, and I think we need a black role model in a predominantly black city, especially for the younger men."
By the time of the election, most analysts expect these undecided votes to split largely along racial lines.
Nonetheless, the political strategists for both candidates said yesterday that they're not taking anything for granted and plan to fight for every vote.
"We're going after our votes in every quarter of the community," said Cheryl Benton, Mrs. Clarke's campaign manager.
She agreed that the challenge for the Clarke campaign within the next eight weeks is to articulate an easily identifiable message on education, jobs and crime that voters will associate with Mrs. Clarke.
Larry S. Gibson, her counterpart in the Schmoke campaign, said the mayor's re-election workers were contacting voters citywide.
"You campaign where you'll do well. You also campaign where you want to do better," he said. Mr. Gibson also said the Schmoke campaign is "under the impression that the mayor's doing significantly better among white voters" than the poll showed but declined to elaborate.
In his first two races for mayor in 1987 and 1991, Mr. Schmoke got about a third of the white vote running against Clarence H. Du Burns, a black candidate. Mr. Schmoke got 62 percent of the black vote in 1987 and 78 percent of the black vote in 1991.
For her part, Mrs. Clarke, in her successful 1987 City Council primary campaign (she had only token opposition in 1991), won 30 percent of the city's black vote in a three-way race involving another white and a strong black candidate.
In 1987 and 1991, turnout in the Democratic primaries was 46 percent and 40 percent, respectively.
In 1983, when then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer trounced former Circuit Judge William H. Murphy Jr., the turnout was 63 percent.
This year, turnout could be the deciding factor, analysts say.
"It means on election day if there is a large black turnout Schmoke wins, if there is a poor black turnout and a large white turnout Mary Pat has a chance, and if there is an ordinary black turnout and an ordinary white turnout it looks like Schmoke wins," said Mr. Norris.