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Mary Pat Clarke's fortunes may rest on 'favorability' CAMPAIGN 1995


The Kurt Schmoke campaign is pleased with the results of the recent Mason-Dixon poll, but not for the reason you might think.

The poll, released last week by The Sun and Channel 2, shows Schmoke leading his mayoral primary challenger, Mary Pat Clarke, by 15 percentage points.

But that is not the figure the mayor's people care about. That figure, they believe, is likely to narrow before election day.

(So does Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon. He told me last week he believes the race is closer than the current spread makes it appear.)

No, the figure that really pleases the Schmoke people is Mary Pat Clarke's current favorability rating. They believe it is surprisingly low.

Prior to her run for mayor, Mary Pat Clarke was one of the most popular politicians in Baltimore, not only among whites, but among blacks.

And that popularity was certainly a major factor in Clarke's decision to run for mayor. She had every reason to believe she was genuinely liked by the public at large.

But if the public is anything, it is fickle.

On July 12-13, Mason-Dixon pollsters asked 409 likely Democratic primary voters if they had a "favorable, unfavorable or neutral opinion" about Schmoke and Clarke.

This was not a job performance question. This was a "likability" question.

It was also not an either/or question. Those polled could give a favorable rating to both Schmoke and Clarke if they so chose.

The results: Schmoke got a 57 percent favorable rating and Clarke got 44 percent.

(Schmoke's unfavorable rating was 19 percent and Clarke's was 14 percent, but neither of those figures, according to Coker, is very high.)

So the question is: Why is Mary Pat Clarke's favorable rating below 50 percent?

And what does it mean for her election chances if the figure stays that low?

It is tempting to dismiss this figure, since it measures only likability. But likability is important in political races.

Yes, issues often count and often shape voter opinion. But when voters enter the voting booth they often vote on how they "feel" about a candidate.

And that's why campaigns spend so much time and money shaping a candidate's public image.

At this point in the race, with less than eight weeks to go until the primary, Clarke wanted to be able to concentrate on a single goal: Persuading voters she can bring about positive change for Baltimore.

Instead, however, Clarke may have to add a second goal: Halting the nose-dive in her popularity.

In other words, she must examine what about her current image is rubbing voters the wrong way.

The Mason-Dixon poll did not report a racial breakdown in the favorable/unfavorable ratings, but the Schmoke campaign believes Clarke has taken her biggest hit in the black community.

It is important to keep in mind that a person who intended to vote for Kurt Schmoke still could have given Mary Pat Clarke a favorable rating in the poll.

And, in the past, they have.

The Schmoke campaign believes that in past years not only was Clarke's favorable rating in the high 70s, but also that the bulk of that came from black voters.

And since Clarke's campaign is largely predicated on her ability to draw a significant number of black votes -- her early campaign literature sent to potential contributors stressed it repeatedly -- her ability to regain popularity in the black community may be essential to her hopes for victory.

If you ask the Clarke forces to describe their candidate's personality they will tell you she is tough yet compassionate, a tireless champion of the people, and an honest voice for the common man and woman.

The Schmoke campaign, however, portrays her as shrill, given to wild, unsupported charges and an opportunist.

And if the favorability rating in the Mason-Dixon poll is any guide, the Schmoke campaign seems to have had more success so far in shaping Clarke's public image than her own campaign.

But the primary election is not until Sept. 12 and Clarke is by no means out of the race.

She just thought her chief challenge in these last weeks of campaigning was to look mayoral.

In fact, her chief challenge may be to look likable.

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