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A tight contest for front-runner

The Baltimore Sun

Incumbent Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake and Michael Sarbanes, a longtime civic activist, are in a dead heat in this year's Democratic primary campaign for City Council president, with the bulk of voters undecided, according to the results of a poll conducted for The Sun.

Twenty-seven percent of the likely Baltimore Democratic primary voters polled said they would vote for Sarbanes versus 26 percent for Rawlings-Blake. The poll has a margin of error of no more than 4 percentage points.

But 37 percent of the electorate said they have not decided on a candidate to support, meaning the race is far from settled.

"The undecided are huge in this race," said Steve Raabe, president and founder of OpinionWorks, the independent, nonpartisan Annapolis-based firm that conducted the poll for The Sun.

"I would predict that this race is going to shift around a great deal. I think this race is going to be much more fluid, and it's much less defined" than the mayoral race.

OpinionWorks interviewed 601 likely Democratic primary voters between July 8 and 10 for the poll.

City Councilman Kenneth J. Harris Sr. received 8 percent of the vote, while Charles Ulysses Smith, a perennial candidate, captured 1 percent.

In the same poll, the race for mayor appears to be far less competitive. The Sun reported yesterday that Mayor Sheila Dixon is leading City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. by 47 percent to 15 percent, with none of the six other candidates garnering more than 5 percent.

Though the City Council president position is far less powerful than the mayor, the race is shaping up to be the most widely watched and competitive in the Sept. 11 primary that will likely determine the city's new leaders.

This year's election is unusual because Rawlings-Blake, though the incumbent, was appointed to the job in January. That's when then-City Council President Dixon was elevated to mayor after Gov. Martin O'Malley's election.

So for all three of the leading council president candidates - Sarbanes, Rawlings-Blake and Harris - this campaign marks their first effort to run citywide. But both Rawlings-Blake and Sarbanes have the advantage of wide name recognition based largely on their family legacies.

Rawlings-Blake is the daughter of the late Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who was one of the state's most recognized and powerful black politicians.

Sarbanes is the son of retired Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, the state's longest-serving U.S. senator. His brother, U.S. Rep. John P. Sarbanes, won last year's competitive election for the 3rd Congressional District seat in his first run for public office.

Michael Sarbanes, the former director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, is also making his first run for public office.

Many of the poll respondents interviewed by The Sun acknowledged that they know little about either candidate, and the ones who were leaning toward Sarbanes or Rawlings-Blake said they are doing so solely based on their names.

"Truthfully, it probably has to do with his father's name," said Joy B. Vernacchio, 75, of Mount Vernon, who said she will likely vote for Sarbanes. "It's not like you have a lot to go on. His father was always good, he had the interest of the Baltimore people in mind. I'm hoping that his son will do the same."

George Edward Milbert, 59, of Canton, said he is leaning toward Rawlings-Blake.

"She's younger and maybe a little more fresh," said Milbert. "And I think the family history in politics and in Maryland are pretty strong. I'm sure her father opened some doors and did some things. I think people like that already have that background and the learning curve is much less."

Some experts said that, though the race appears to be within reach of either of the two leading candidates, Rawlings-Blake might have the advantage, given the demographics of the city.

Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University, said Rawlings-Blake and Harris would need to split the black vote more evenly for Sarbanes to pull ahead.

"Harris isn't drawing enough to throw the election," said Crenson. "The better Ken Harris does, the more he catches up to Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the better things will look for Sarbanes."

Still, Crenson and others pointed out that in Baltimore black voters are more likely to cross over and vote for a white candidate than vice versa.

In the poll, black voters supported Rawlings Blake over Sarbanes by 31 percent to 22 percent. Sarbanes led Rawlings-Blake among white voters by 31 percent to 20 percent.

Donald Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said the split results mean neither candidate can afford to make a mistake and must work extra hard in the next six weeks to capture the undecided voters.

Norris said that, if the election were closer, the undecided vote would likely split similar to the overall vote. Therefore, if Rawlings-Blake continued to pull more of the black vote, she would come out on top.

"The tea leaves probably say she's going to win simply because she's an African-American in an African-American city," said Norris. "She's got a good reputation. There are no political blemishes. And she's got a very, very solid name. Other things being equal in that sort of a situation, the African-American candidate wins."

Rawlings-Blake had a higher crossover rate with Dixon, another factor that could influence the election.

She pulled an equal amount of votes from voters who said they support Mitchell and Dixon. Sarbanes, on the other hand, appeared to have more support from Mitchell supporters than those backing Dixon.

The final determinant in the race, said experts, will be the amount of money each candidate raises, which will translate into high visibility and TV air time.

"Name recognition clearly did great for his brother and it probably will help him not only with voters but with donors," said Crenson of Sarbanes. "But he's going to have to become more visible if he's going to be able to capitalize on it. I assume that he has enough money to go on television and that might prove to be an opportunity for him to appeal to that large undecided vote."

C. Vernon Gray, a Morgan State University political scientist, said the race will come down to endorsements and fundraising.

O'Malley is scheduled to endorse Rawlings-Blake at an event today.

Undecided voters say they're waiting for more visible campaigns. For many, a name alone is not enough.

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.

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