Early on, as three black candidates and one white one began campaigning for City Council president, most people would only whisper about the role race would have on the contest's outcome. Then Joseph J. DiBlasi, who is white, made the issue decidedly public by declaring he would target only white voters.
Now race counts.
Since Mr. DiBlasi's comments this month, critics have lambasted him for playing the race card. And his opponents -- Lawrence A. Bell III, Vera P. Hall and Carl Stokes -- are getting warnings from leaders of the black community who say at least one of the three should drop out. Unless one does, Mr. DiBlasi could triumph by splitting the black vote three ways, they say, which was Mr. DiBlasi's strategy.
This year's contest comes as Baltimore's blacks try to keep the political power they won four years ago in redistricting and whites try to cope with shrinking political influence in a majority black city.
"This is one of the first elections in Baltimore that is dividing along racial lines," said J. Bradford Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research, the company that has conducted two recent polls for The Sun and WMAR-TV Channel 2.
Baltimore's council presidency has been a steppingstone to higher political office -- former Gov. William Donald Schaefer served in the job. The president runs the council, presides over the Board of Estimates and is next in the line of succession for mayor.
Unlike elections in Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington and other large cities, contests for the top of the ticket in Baltimore have not become incendiary because of race, Mr. Coker said. In past elections, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke won support from the white community and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke garnered support from the black community.
A survey of 435 likely Democratic primary voters completed last week by Mr. Coker's company found generally that whites would vote for whites and blacks for blacks. The survey showed Mr. DiBlasi with 19 percent of the potential vote. Close behind him was Mr. Bell, with 18 percent.
"This is not unique to Baltimore," Mr. Coker said. "If there are candidates who are of different races, in 90-plus percent of the instances, the candidates will do best among their racial groups."
Despite Mr. DiBlasi's appeal to his race, the three black candidates are not interested in discussing the matter.
* "Our campaign message is universal," Mr. Bell said.
* "It's not the real issue," Mrs. Hall said.
* "I don't think it is a problem," Mr. Stokes said.
For his part, Mr. DiBlasi doesn't see his appeals to white voters as anything more than a campaign tactic. "It is strategy, not race," he said. And since his tactic was criticized, he changed it, now saying he'll pursue black voters, too.
Yet political analysts and community leaders say race, especially in this campaign, is ever-present.
Some criticize the black candidates for catering to their egos by staying in the race. Others criticize Mr. DiBlasi, not for targeting the white vote but for publicly saying so.
"My concern was that if we are really concerned with gaining political and economical power for African-Americans, then we need to be smart enough not to divide our strength by having a number of [black] candidates run for one position," said Rodney A. Orange, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Mr. Orange, who also is running for a 6th District council seat, said black candidates have an extra burden in elections. Blacks need to figure out which candidate would be best for the black community before the race begins, and then back that candidate to ensure the greatest possibility of success.
Frank Morris, a political scientist and dean of graduate studies and research at Morgan State University, said Mr. Orange's ideas are shortsighted.
He says black voters erroneously have been categorized as thinking the same way. But in a race for an office as influential as council president, blacks should demand several choices from within their own varied community.
"Choice is more important than putting one black in office," Mr. Morris said. "What we have are candidates who all bring different strengths. Things like that work for the advantage not the disadvantage of black people."
Mr. Morris concedes that choice is not always a winning formula.
"The fact that there is not any consensus on one candidate may mean that [a black candidate] may not win at this time," Mr. Morris said.
But, he said, Mr. DiBlasi "is not running an anti-black campaign."