With the primary races finally decided yesterday, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele launched their general election campaigns for Maryland's open seat in the U.S. Senate, a contest that already is drawing national attention - and money.
Cardin, who defeated friend and former congressional colleague Kweisi Mfume for the Democratic nomination to the seat held by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, came out firing yesterday, linking Steele with President Bush while invoking what he described as government failures in Iraq and the Gulf Coast.
"There is a big difference between Michael Steele and me as to the agendas that we will bring to Washington," the 10-term congressman told supporters at a Democratic rally yesterday in Northwest Baltimore.
"We need the United States Senate to stand up and hold President Bush accountable," Cardin said. "We need the U.S. Senate to stop the blockage of stem cells based upon an ideological wall to be available for research. ... We need the U.S. Senate to hold President Bush accountable for his efforts to privatize and dismantle Social Security. We need the U.S. Senate to hold President Bush accountable for the mess he's made in Iraq."
Steele, speaking later in the day, rejected attempts to link him to the president.
"If Congressman Cardin wants to run against George Bush, then he should have run for president," he told WBAL Radio. "But the reality of it is, no amount of demonizing of the president, no amount of scaring people about the war, is going to change the reality that we have kids in failing public schools. We have entrepreneurs who are weighted down by heavy tax burdens and regulatory burdens, unable to free up capital to hire people and to expand businesses. We've got a health care crisis staring us in the face. We're living an energy crisis at the moment, and it's going to take leadership that's going to be focused on the realities of everyday life."
The tone of the exchange differed markedly from that of the primary races, when Cardin and Mfume had presided over an amicable contest for the Democratic nomination, and Steele faced no serious opposition for the Republican nomination.
Early yesterday, state Republicans issued a release titled "Meet Congressman Ben Cardin," in which they sought to portray him as a career politician beholden to the special interests - the oil, gas, pharmaceutical and health care industries among them - that they said had contributed more than $4.5 million to his campaigns since he entered Congress in 1986.
"A lifetime spent as a politician and Washington, D.C., insider ... has made Congressman Cardin totally out-of-touch with Marylanders and a totally unlikely advocate for change," the Maryland Republican Party said in a statement.
Cardin spokesman Oren Shur accused Republicans of attempting to distract voters.
"Once again we're seeing Michael Steele and his allies launch attacks instead of talking about issues important to Maryland families," he said. "Ben Cardin and Michael Steele have sharp differences on the Bush agenda. Michael Steele supports the president's plan to privatize Social Security. Ben Cardin opposes it. Michael Steele supports the war in Iraq. Ben Cardin voted against it. The Republicans are hoping to distract voters from the clear differences between the candidates in this race."
Such language reflects the stakes in the contest, seen as one of the few opportunities nationwide that the Republicans have this year to take a Senate seat from the Democrats. Both parties are expected to target the state with money and visits from national leaders.
"For Republicans, I can't think of a more important race in the country," said Zach Messitte, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "Here's a chance to pick up a seat that's been in Democratic hands for 30 years."
Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who was the party's nominee for president in 2004, planned to attend a fundraiser for Cardin and other Maryland Democrats last night in Clarksville. Steele has received fundraising help from Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, White House political adviser Karl Rove and other prominent Republicans.
Steele launched what he called the "Steele Wheels for Change Bus Tour" yesterday, making stops at the Park Heights Barbershop in Baltimore, Main Street in Parkville and the Anne Arundel County Fair in Crownsville.
Kevin Zeese, who has won the backing of the Green, Libertarian and Populist parties for the Senate, opened what he described as a "three-way race" yesterday with a speech in Washington at the Palestine Center on reforming Middle East policy.
"The security of Americans demands that we get Middle East policy right," Zeese, the director of the anti-war group DemocracyRising.US, said in a statement. "But too many elected officials refuse to discuss the mistakes the U.S. Government is making in the region."
Messitte said Cardin's and Steele's strategies are now apparent.
"Steele's message has been that it's time for a change," he said. "Cardin ... doesn't have skeletons in his closet and doesn't have a lot of very controversial votes. So they've positioned themselves as, 'Do you want old, or do you want new?'
"Cardin, on the other hand, his strategy is probably pretty clear, which is, 'This guy is a Republican, and he's a conservative Republican. He may tell you that he's a different kind of politician, but here's where he stood on the stem-cell debate, here's where he stood on abortion.' I'm sure they've got quotes on him talking about Iraq before Iraq became uncool."
In an election between a white Democrat and a black Republican, the African-American community has been seen as a crucial constituency for both sides. Cardin and Steele have worked to woo black voters, many of whom traditionally vote Democratic but could be open to supporting Steele.
"One of the things that the Democrats had better start thinking about carefully is appeals to African-American voters because they have four white males nominated for four statewide offices, and one of them defeated a black candidate," said Matthew A. Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "They're going to have to work to get the black vote this time."
Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.