The 15 percentage point lead that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has over City Council President Mary Pat Clarke in a new poll is big, but it's not big enough to say the Sept. 12 Democratic primary for mayor won't be close. There are too many things that could happen between now and Election Day to make that assessment.
The Mason-Dixon poll conducted for The Sun and WMAR-TV shows 20 percent of the electorate hasn't made up its mind and the poll itself has a 5 percent possible margin of error. Put all that together and it means Mrs. Clarke is definitely within striking distance and she has eight weeks to convince undecided voters that she is mayor material.
Unfortunately, the poll also seems to sustain fears that this election could become racially divisive. Only 16 percent of whites said they would vote for the re-election of the city's first elected black mayor. And only 13 percent of blacks said they would vote for Mrs. Clarke.
That must be a disappointment for Mrs. Clarke. She has been cast as one of the most popular white politicians among the city's black population. If blacks like her so well, their reluctance to voice their support for Mrs. Clarke probably indicates both their reluctance to vote against a black incumbent as well as a lack of confidence in her abilities to run the city as mayor.
But Mr. Schmoke must similarly be concerned that 28 percent of the black poll respondents said they either favored Mrs. Clarke or were undecided (15 percent). The 72 percent of blacks who said they will vote for him means Mr. Schmoke's black support could be weaker against a white candidate, Mrs. Clarke, than it was against a black opponent, Clarence "Du" Burns, in the 1991 election (78 percent). The mayor has consistently denied that his re-election campaign is racially oriented, but these numbers certainly suggest Mr. Schmoke can't expect blacks to vote for him just because of the place he holds in African American history.
With neither candidate being able to take anything for granted, Baltimore can expect each to get more aggressive as Election Day draws nearer. Both will try to reach out to undecided black voters, who may be the key to this race.
In doing so, they should consider the poll's showing that there is no racial divide on Baltimore's No. 1 problem. Sixty-eight percent of blacks and 62 percent of whites said drugs and crime together form the biggest issue in the election. Education is a distant second, with 13 percent of blacks and 10 percent of whites saying it is more important. It's obvious that the next mayor should be the person who can create a school system so good it helps reduce drug abuse and crime.