Mfume-Cardin contest open

Leading Democrats in dead heat

many primary voters undecided

The Sun Poll Senate Race


The Democratic primary contest for U.S. Senate is a virtual dead heat between former congressman and NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, with each getting about 3 of 10 votes, a new poll for The Sun shows.

With many voters undecided 10 months before the primary, the Democratic contest remains wide open, the survey finds.

Statewide, more than one in three Democratic voters have not made up their minds in the race to replace Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat who is the longest-serving senator in state history and who decided in March not to seek re-election. The proportion of undecided voters rises to 60 percent in Montgomery County, the state's most populous jurisdiction, where neither Baltimore-area politician is well-known.

Whoever emerges from the primary will have a formidable foe in Michael S. Steele, the Republican lieutenant governor, who faces no significant opposition within his party, the survey shows.

In a general election matchup, Cardin leads Steele 43 percent to 32 percent, with 25 percent undecided or refusing to answer.

A contest pitting Steele against Mfume is virtually tied, with the lieutenant governor getting 39 percent of the vote and Mfume 38 percent. The gap is within the survey's 3.2 percentage point margin of error.

The telephone poll of 1,008 likely voters was conducted from Oct. 27 to Nov. 1 by Potomac Inc., an independent, nonpartisan firm based in Bethesda. For the Democratic primary, 474 likely voters were surveyed, with a margin of error of 4.6 percentage points.

Cardin and Mfume are the only candidates who register significant support in a crowded primary field. Three other declared Democratic candidates with visible campaign organizations - university professor Allan J. Lichtman, forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren and businessman and philanthropist Joshua Rales - barely register among voters. Socialist A. Robert Kaufman is also running.

Mfume's appeal

While Cardin has raised more money than Mfume and other Democrats and waged a more visible campaign to date, Mfume's solid support among black voters is boosting his standing, the survey shows. He carries a 63 percent to 15 percent edge in the key primary constituency.

"He has star power in the African-American community," said pollster Keith Haller.

Mfume said he was "encouraged" by the poll, and that it demonstrates that voters are not listening to some political leaders whom he has accused of trying to mastermind the election.

"This race is competitive no matter what the political bosses would like to get people to think," Mfume said. "There was this premature effort to go out and round up dollars and round up endorsements by some people who wanted to drive me out of the race. ... The numbers suggest to me that the efforts to have a coronation rather than a campaign are falling through."

Lateef Adenekan, 48, an insurance broker from Randallstown, said he followed Mfume's career in Congress and was impressed with his record. Adenekan is critical of the war in Iraq, a stance that he said would drive his decision.

"If he opposes the war, he is going to get my vote," Adenekan said.

Mfume has lagged behind Cardin in fundraising. In the most recent filing period, Cardin reported having $1.5 million in cash, compared with $97,000 for Mfume.

"These [poll] numbers say to donors that your money is not being wasted," Mfume said.

Reliable voters

The survey shows that Cardin performs better in the primary when only reliable voters - those who voted in three of the past four statewide elections - are counted. Among those voters, Cardin has a 36 percent to 26 percent lead over Mfume.

Cardin also appears stronger in the general election, and has a broad base of support across the state, Haller said.

In the three traditional large Democratic jurisdictions of Montgomery County, Prince George's County and Baltimore City, Cardin leads Steele by 24 percentage points, and in Baltimore County by 13 percentage points. In the 14 most rural counties in the state, which traditionally favor Republican candidates, Cardin trails Steele by an average of 4 points.

"Geographically, there is no place in the state where Cardin is not competitive with Steele," Haller said. "Cardin is a very formidable general election candidate."

In a general election matchup against Steele, Mfume has sizable margins in the three large Democratic jurisdictions but trails in the rest of the state, 27 percent to 49 percent.

Cardin's strengths

Cardin said he was making a concerted effort to campaign in all corners of Maryland, and believes the effort is working. "That's the way you win statewide," he said. "You can't win with a three-county strategy."

Democrat Kathleen Saynuk of Bel Air said she was backing the congressman because of his long experience in Congress, where he has served since 1987.

"He's seasoned," the 65-year-old homemaker said. "I think he knows how to handle himself and get things done, while Steele would be the new kid on the block."

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