Dixon keeps strong lead

The Baltimore Sun

Despite modest gains by her chief opponent, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon maintains a dominating lead ahead of this month's Democratic primary, a new poll for The Sun shows.

Her opponents have attacked her ethics and have blamed her for this year's staggering increase in homicides, but Dixon's large lead has barely eroded - though an increasing percentage of voters do say that they have an unfavorable impression of her.

With nine days until the Sept. 11 election, Dixon leads City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. by 46 percent to 19 percent - a 27 percentage-point spread - according to the poll conducted by OpinionWorks, an independent Annapolis-based firm. More than a quarter of voters are still undecided.

Mitchell has slightly closed the yawning 32 percentage-point gap that separated the two candidates in a July poll for The Sun, but several experts said his campaign has not made enough progress this summer to pose a real threat to Dixon's election.

"Dixon has held just rock solid," said Steve Raabe, president and founder of OpinionWorks. "There's this kind of simmering dissatisfaction out there, but it has not really filtered into the mayor's race to the benefit of any of her challengers."

The other candidates in the mayor's race received less than 5 percent of the vote each - identical to their support in the July poll. Schools administrator Andrey Bundley, who ran for mayor once before in 2003, received 4 percent, and Del. Jill P. Carter received 2 percent.

Stresses incumbency

Though she has been in office only eight months, Dixon has run a campaign that emphasizes her incumbency - a strategy that appears to be working.

She became Baltimore's first woman mayor when Martin O'Malley was sworn in as governor Jan. 17. Since then she has raised more money, received more key endorsements and purchased more television airtime to get her message out.

"My guess is it's all over but the final tally as far as the Mitchell campaign is concerned," said Donald F. Norris, a professor and chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "When you're down by 27 points with less than two weeks to go, it's virtually impossible and unheard of to come back."

Lenneal J. Henderson, a professor at the University of Baltimore's School of Public Affairs, agreed.

"I think it is over. It would take a huge misstep on the part of Sheila Dixon for her not to win this one," he said.

"She would have to do something really egregious for her not to win this one. I mean 8 on the Richter scale."

Dixon is doing better among blacks and whites, men and women, those who own their homes and those who rent, as well as every age group, education level and geographic region of the city.

Wrong track

Voters appear to be supporting Dixon at the same time they think the city is heading down the wrong track - a contradiction noted in the earlier poll by The Sun.

Only 29 percent of voters said the city is heading in the right direction, a drop from 34 percent who felt that way in The Sun's July poll.

More people said they now have an unfavorable impression of Dixon and Mitchell - likely the result of negative television advertising both campaigns have been airing.

Dixon's net favorable opinion - which is the difference between those who view her favorably and unfavorably - dropped from 56 percent to 47 percent.

Mitchell's declined from 38 percent to 23 percent.

When asked how well Dixon is doing controlling crime, improving schools and keeping the city cleaner, she received relatively poor marks - 63 percent of voters feel she is doing only a fair or poor job of handling crime, for instance - but those numbers have barely moved since July.

While Mitchell has attempted to capitalize on that apparent weakness, making the city's rising number of homicides a centerpiece of his campaign, 44 percent of voters still believe Dixon would do a better job dealing with crime, compared with 27 percent for Mitchell and 19 percent who are unsure.

Not placing blame

So far this year, the number of homicides is up 17 percent over the same period last year. But experts said voters are simply not pinning the city's crime problem on City Hall.

"Everybody complains about the homicides, but I think the assumption that many voters make, especially in Baltimore, is that the mayor can't do a lot to reduce the homicide rate," said Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew Crenson.

"And maybe Keiffer Mitchell made a mistake to make that the focus of his campaign."

Homicides did go down after O'Malley took office - an 18 percent decline from 1999 to 2002, the first time in years that the number of homicides dropped below 300.

But O'Malley never came close to the 175 he promised to bring the murder count down to. And in 2006, the last year in which O'Malley was in office, the number of homicides was actually higher than in 2000, his first full year.

"It's impossible for the police to stop these murders. You'd have to put a police in everybody's house and on every corner," said Ruby Rose, a 68-year-old Northwood-area resident who is supporting Dixon.

"The citizens have to get involved."

Honesty issues

The only area of her job in which voters think that Dixon is slipping is on running an honest government.

Nineteen percent of voters think Dixon is doing a poor job running an honest government - a number that has changed since the July poll, when 13 percent felt that way.

That worsening public perception comes as Mitchell and others in the race have attacked Dixon more forcefully on questionable contracts issued by her office when she was the president of the City Council. Dixon had voted on contracts that benefited a company that employed her sister, an action prohibited by the city's ethics law.

In another case, a former campaign chairman of Dixon's wound up receiving more than a half-million dollars in taxpayer money without a contract. The former chairman, Dale G. Clark, was charged Thursday with failing to file income tax returns for three of the six years in which he earned money from the city.

News of the charges came after the pollsters conducted their interviews. The poll, which includes 559 likely Democratic voters who were interviewed by OpinionWorks from Aug. 26 to Aug. 28, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points. It includes responses that came after the WBAL-TV and Maryland Public Television debate on Aug. 27.

Mitchell faced his own controversy early in August when his father, a respected physician, resigned as his son's campaign treasurer after aides discovered that $40,000 in campaign funds had been used on questionable expenses.

The amount was later revised to $56,000, and questions remain about where, exactly, the money went.

More than three-quarters of voters said they had heard of the campaign's finance scandal, and 16 percent said it would make them less likely to vote for Mitchell. But 61 percent said that it would not cause them to change their vote or that they were unsure.

Alton Gibson, a 43-year-old Ashburton resident, said he was not swayed by the troubles in Mitchell's campaign. Gibson said he likes Dixon but will ultimately support Mitchell because of the respect he has for the accomplishments of his family.

"He seems to be a worthwhile candidate," said Gibson, adding that he agrees with the focus that Mitchell's campaign has placed on education. "He seems to be moving in the right direction."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Sumathi Reddy contributed to this article.

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