Blacks' concerns key in U.S. Senate race


NEW YORK -- In a dimly lit ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria, where waiters circulated trays of salmon and caviar and chicken liver pate, Kweisi Mfume implored a group of mostly young, well-heeled African-Americans to continue the civil rights journey begun by their parents' generation. And he promised he would help them with that work.

"So help me God, there are so many of us my age and older that would lay down with our last breath and make our bodies a bridge just so you could walk across and finish doing that job," Mfume, a candidate for U.S. Senate in Maryland, said to applause from the crowd gathered at the campaign fundraiser last month.

As a crowded field of Democrats, including Mfume and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore, prepare to duke it out to run against Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican, the leading candidates and party leaders are as conscious as ever of the concerns and loyalties of black voters.

State and national Democrats recently commissioned an internal poll, obtained by The Sun, that looked exclusively at the mood of the black electorate in an attempt to discern how receptive it might be to Steele. The fact that they're examining the leanings of blacks early in the race shows concern.

The poll is one attempt to answer a sensitive question being bandied about in Maryland political circles: Are Democrats more likely to prevail against Steele, the first African-American elected statewide in Maryland history, with a white congressman or with the black former congressman and national NAACP president as their nominee?

Or, put another way: Who is the best candidate to keep African-American voters, a traditionally loyal constituency and one that makes up about 30 percent of the state's population, aligned with the Democratic Party?

In horse-race match-ups to date, Cardin has consistently fared better than Mfume against Steele, and in light of that, key party players, including Rep. Steny H. Hoyer and state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, are lining up their troops behind him. But Mfume's campaign argues that its candidate, who has polled about even with Steele, could prevent African-Americans from shifting to Steele.

"I think that Steele gets more black votes if he's not running against another black candidate," said Chuck Todd, editor of The Hotline, a well-respected Washington daily political briefing. "Mfume might be able to actually carry 90 percent of the black vote against Steele."

Steele, meanwhile, has been making a not-so-subtle plea to African-American voters during regular visits to black churches. A recent campaign fundraising letter, sent with a photograph of Steele with his arm around President Bush, alleges that Democrats are "engaged in blatant racism and irresponsible behavior." He refers to racial slurs against him - one was made by a liberal blogger based in New York - to slam "uncivil Democrats."

Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson, an Mfume supporter, said that Steele's ties to the Bush administration make it impossible for the lieutenant governor to sell himself as a true champion of Maryland's minorities.

"Steele has really shown that he is a George Bush, Ronald Reagan, [Rep. Tom] Delay Republican," Johnson said. "I don't think the African-American community and especially the other Democrats are going to support him."

But a recent survey paid for by the Maryland Democratic Party and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee reveals that many of Maryland's black voters might consider Steele. The survey - analyzed by Cornell Belcher of Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies - was conducted during the first week in March and surveys 489 voters. It was weighted heavily toward Prince George's County and Baltimore.

The survey concludes that 44 percent of those polled indicated that they were persuadable when presented with Steele's campaign message, a plurality that the pollster labels "the emerging black swing" vote. Meanwhile, 14 percent said they are solid Steele supporters, and 42 percent said they are committed Democrats.

Black swing voters appear neutral or somewhat open to Steele, giving him ratings comparable to those of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. When asked to score their feelings on a scale of zero to 100, with zero least favorable and 100 most favorable, swing voters gave Steele an average rating of 54. Ehrlich received a 55.

Conversely, those same persuadable voters expressed great dissatisfaction with President Bush, with 87 percent saying they disapprove of the president's job performance.

Although race can be a touchy and divisive topic, practicality makes it an unavoidable issue in Maryland's Senate race: Democrats are intent on retaining a seat held for three decades by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

To do that, political experts agree that the state's sizable African-American population must turn out heavily for the Democratic candidate. But recent history has made the task more difficult.

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