Cardin skips primary plan, focuses on Steele

Maryland Votes 2006


OCEAN CITY -- Gathered for breakfast with several Eastern Shore Democrats in a diner yesterday, U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin discussed his campaign tactics to win the Senate race against Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.

One problem: Cardin has a Democratic primary election to win first against Kweisi Mfume and several other candidates, including well-financed businessman Josh Rales.

Yet Cardin quickly dispensed with his standard discussion of primary strategy -- television commercials, phone calls and field work -- and trained his attention squarely on Steele, linking the lieutenant governor with an unpopular President Bush.

"He is going to be a strong ally of the president," Cardin told a half-dozen Democrats in town for the Maryland Association of Counties conference.

Mfume, who arrived in Ocean City several hours later, said Cardin is getting ahead of himself.

"The primary comes first. I think it can be a little dangerous to make assumptions in this race," Mfume said.

Political observers interpret Cardin's actions as an indication of a broader strategy to portray himself as the presumed Democratic nominee by ignoring Mfume.

"The front-runner can always do it and get away with it. And Cardin is perceived to be the front-runner," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Norris said Cardin cannot attack Mfume, the former leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, because he cannot afford to lose black voters in what many polls show is a tight race. A poll for The Sun in July showed Cardin leading Mfume, 32 percent to 28 percent, but the 4-point difference was within the margin of error.

Against Steele, Cardin had an 11-point advantage, while Mfume was up by only two points, the poll found. Cardin said that lead, mirrored in a Washington Post poll, was encouraging because he said Steele has had more news coverage as lieutenant governor.

Cardin has far more money than Mfume and has been airing television commercials in the Washington and Baltimore regions. Rales, a millionaire businessman from Bethesda, has outspent everyone with a nearly ubiquitous TV presence.

This summer, campaign finance reports showed that Steele had $3 million in cash on hand. Cardin had $2.3 million, and Mfume reported only $171,000.

Mfume said money alone won't win this race. "The question becomes whether or not wall-to-wall television replaces hand-to-hand campaigning," Mfume said. "I'm a hand-to-hand campaigner."

Mfume said the odometer on his Jeep is testament to how many voters he has managed to reach in his 17-month campaign, and he said he will "have a few surprises" in the closing weeks.

Cardin, meanwhile, is trying to tie Steele to Bush at a time when 60 percent of Marylanders disapprove of the president's job performance, according to the Sun poll.

Cardin also said Steele has no voting record to track, but that his past statements clearly show that he will support a Republican agenda. He said recent comments by Steele critical of Bush and the Republican Party show that Steele is talking out of both sides of his mouth in a predominantly Democratic state.

Doug Heye, Steele's press secretary, said Cardin is trying to have things two ways: trying to show that Steele is a Republican but conceding that the lieutenant governor is critical of his own party.

"Ben Cardin acknowledged that Michael Steele is willing to talk straight and is willing to point out what's wrong with both parties," Heye said.

Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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