Steele, Cardin funding assailed

Republican's links to Bush, Democrat's special-interest ties draw criticism


Two leading U.S. Senate candidates are stepping up their attacks on each other's big-ticket campaign donors, launching a debate that could make political contributors - and the potential effect they have on candidates - a centerpiece of an already contentious election.

As Democrats continue to criticize Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele for fundraisers featuring Bush administration officials, Republicans are raising concerns that Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin takes an inordinate share of his campaign cash from special-interest groups instead of regular Marylanders.

Though it is unclear whether either message will resonate with voters, observers and campaign officials say the fundraising refrains are sure to be sounded again and again, possibly in television commercials and campaign literature, as one of the state's most important political contests unfolds.

Steele and Cardin have saved their criticism for each other, largely ignoring another top contender in the Democratic primary, Kweisi Mfume, as well as the other announced candidates. A poll conducted by The Sun in November found Mfume and Cardin in a dead heat, but Mfume - formerly a congressman and head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - has raised significantly less money than other leading candidates since then.

Cardin raised $3.89 million this election cycle, compared with $2.65 million for Steele and $623,000 for Mfume, according to disclosure reports filed this month with the Federal Election Commission.

As campaign staffers prepared to comb through those reports, a volley of e-mails went out to supporters and reporters.

The Maryland Republican Party - which has taken to calling Cardin "special interest Ben" in its material - questioned how his connections will affect his beliefs.

Democrats called Steele's fundraising reports a "Who's who list of Bush Republicans." In their attack, Democrats point to a series of fundraisers in recent months that have drawn top White House officials, including one April 7 with Vice President Dick Cheney and another Nov. 30 attended by President Bush. The latter event brought $500,000 into Steele's campaign.

Disclosure records also show Steele received money from Marvin P. Bush, the president's brother, as well as a number of conservative political action committees, such as the Government Is Not God PAC and the National Conservative Campaign Fund.

"We're going to make it very, very clear that Michael Steele is a pawn of George Bush, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove," said David Paulson, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party. "The voters will respond appropriately."

Democrats say Steele's fundraising is fair game for criticism because to win, the candidate must appeal to moderate voters who may be turned off by conservative contributors.

Steele's campaign counters that Democrats are desperately trying to tie him to national Republicans to erode his credibility among African-Americans.

"The national Democratic Party bosses are clearly running a calculated smear campaign," said Steele spokeswoman Melissa Sellers, pointing to an internal study commissioned by state and national Democrats that found a majority of black voters in Maryland are "open" to Steele's candidacy.

"It's too bad that Ben Cardin and his Democratic Party bosses spend all their time dreaming up race-based, partisan attacks on Michael Steele," she said.

Though Bush has particularly low approval ratings in Maryland, it is common for congressional candidates to receive support from presidents of the same party. After initially shunning President Clinton in 1998 - at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal - then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening accepted his support on the campaign trail in the final days before the election.

Still, Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew Crenson said the tactic of tying Steele to Bush could work for Cardin because it forces Steele to choose between potentially alienating either moderate voters or more conservative Republican contributors.

"The deep-seated anger that many people feel about the Bush administration puts Steele in a rather awkward position," Crenson said.

Cardin supporters paint a picture of Steele based on his fundraising but reject the suggestion that their own candidate's approach to office and future votes could be influenced by where he raises his money.

Republicans have pounced on Cardin, a congressman from the 3rd District since 1987, for raising $4.2 million from political action committees during his tenure in Washington.

"Ben Cardin is really beholden to special interests, not Marylanders," said Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party. "He's part of the established, Capitol Hill-style politics and is not representative of Marylanders."

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