Gaffes make most news in Senate race


Aside from the gaffes, you'd hardly know there was a race for the U.S. Senate in Maryland.

There have been so many foot-shots by one of the candidates in this oddly muted contest that you begin to wonder if it's not a zany strategy, a way to stay in the news until the general election begins.

Republican front-runner Michael S. Steele was at it again last week. He was explaining - or refusing to explain - what he meant by remarks he made to a national magazine reporter about one of his potential opponents.

A week or so earlier he was explaining comments critical of President Bush, his party's president, and the Republican Party in general. Before that he was explaining comments to a Jewish audience about stem cell research and the Nazis.

In the most recent eruption, Mr. Steele, who is black, suggested that he is the candidate who can adequately represent all the voters. His remarks were seen as a swipe at one of his potential Democratic opponents, Kweisi Mfume, also black.

Mr. Mfume, a former Maryland congressman who was most recently head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is running for the Democratic Party's nomination.

Analysts have been saying Mr. Steele and his handlers hope Mr. Mfume will win. They apparently think he'll be easier to defeat than the other leading Democrat, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin.

Mr. Mfume stands before a statewide electorate unfamiliar with African names. He also fathered five children out of wedlock, a part of his biography that might make him vulnerable to Mr. Steele, a former seminarian who has, according to the polls, standing and stature coming along with his current title, lieutenant governor. Mr. Steele's success is a source of pride to some black voters. Others, presumably, are not fond of his Republican politics.

It should also be said that missteps in the Steele camp may include underestimating Mr. Mfume, a galvanic speaker who has been able to turn his past into an asset - life challenges he's been able to take on and vanquish.

Mr. Mfume is already confounding some of the observers. He's remained competitive by offering himself as an experienced new voice, an opponent of the Iraq war with a bit more edge. Unlike the winning Democrat in Connecticut, however, he's not a rich man with money to burn on television advertising.

Mr. Mfume's primary competition in Maryland, Mr. Cardin, started a million-dollar television advertising push in the last few days.

The question for the prognosticators now is this: Who's in the best position to win this somewhat sluggish Democratic primary? Mr. Cardin is not regarded as friendly to President Bush, the circumstance that made Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman vulnerable.

At the same time, a sour national mood could have considerable influence in Maryland as it did in Connecticut. That dynamic might favor Mr. Mfume, who could ride the momentum of generalized anger with Washington leadership. His campaign must draw strength and momentum from external forces, since he is without funds to pay for television.

Then again, Mr. Cardin probably has an organizational advantage. His get-out-the-vote apparatus is likely to be formidable. He has many endorsements as well, which will put him in a position to collect the proceeds of his television campaign.

But he may be too old school. Maybe the Democrats need to stop talking about issues and start working on their own slightly obscure, slightly zany remarks for the national press corps.

And for the record, last week, I incorrectly offered an address on West Pratt street and located it "just east of downtown." It was an East Pratt Street address. Readers noticed. One of them said it was gratifying to read a columnist who knew where he stood. Another, referring to some observations I had made about the failures of redistricting, said he thought not even the most malign politician could make West Pratt Street east of downtown.

I regret the error. The feedback is welcome.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears on Sundays. His e-mail address is

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