With a down-to-the-wire primary behind him, Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin enters the U.S. Senate general election contest with an 11-point lead over his rival, Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, according to a new poll for The Sun.
Six weeks before the November vote, Cardin leads Steele, 51 percent to 40 percent, according to the statewide survey of 815 likely voters. But with Republican and Democratic parties expected to flood the state with money and appearances in the weeks to come, the race remains volatile.
"This is not the kind of lead that's insurmountable at this stage," said James G. Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Cardin has a lead to protect, and Steele has to be the more aggressive campaigner, probably take a few more risks."
Cardin's support stretches across the state, according to the poll, and he dominates in Maryland's most solidly African-American communities: Baltimore and Prince George's County.
Cardin, who beat former NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume in the Democratic primary by fewer than 20,000 votes, holds a nearly 3-to-1 advantage over Steele among black voters, a traditionally Democratic constituency into which the lieutenant governor has attempted to make inroads.
Steele, the highest-ranking statewide black official, leads Cardin, who is white, in rural Maryland, a typically Republican stronghold, and with voters younger than 50. Self-described conservatives strongly favor Steele, a former chairman of the Maryland Republican Party.
Cardin has maintained an 11-point lead over Steele through three Sun polls taken during the past year. The number of undecided voters, meanwhile, has dwindled, from about one in four last November to fewer than one in 10 in the current poll.
The undecided could include supporters of Kevin Zeese, who is backed by the Green, Libertarian and Populist parties.
The telephone survey conducted Sept. 15 to Sept. 18 has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Keith Haller of Potomac Inc. of Bethesda, the independent firm that conducted the survey for The Sun, said Cardin appears to have emerged from a tight primary race with Mfume "no worse for wear."
Cardin benefits from the 2-to-1 registration advantage Democrats enjoy over Republicans in Maryland and the unpopularity of President Bush and the Republican Party in the state, Haller said.
Thirty-five percent of those surveyed said they had more confidence in Republicans to handle the most important problems facing the state. Forty-nine percent believed the Democrats would do a better job.
Only 34 percent, meanwhile, approve of Bush's performance as president. Fifty-nine percent disapprove.
"Maryland remains one of his worst states," Haller said of the president. "He's kind of like raw meat for the Democratic wolf pack."
For that reason, Gimpel said he expects Steele to talk more like a Democrat and play down his ties to the Republican Party.
Elected with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2002, Steele, 47, has never won office on his own. During the Senate campaign, he has received fundraising help from Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and a host of White House loyalists - support that Democrats regularly mention.
But Steele has a panache that Cardin lacks and is working to craft a likable, moderate persona in a series of quirky television ads that do not mention his party affiliation.
The poll shows Steele gaining unusually high support for a Republican among African-American voters. While Cardin is leading with 66 percent of the black vote, 24 percent now favor Steele.
"It's an unprecedented number for a Republican running statewide against a prominent Democrat," Haller said.
Temple Hills resident Robert W. Chandler, 53, is a registered Democrat who said he plans to vote for Ehrlich in the gubernatorial contest and Cardin for Senate. Chandler, who is black, said he believes Ehrlich has done a good job and cheered his pro-slots position. But Steele, he said, has yet to articulate where he stands on issues.
Steele "hasn't really come out of the shadow of the governor, and he said he wants to be a new type of politician, and I see him trying to distance himself from standard politicians, but I don't see much substance there," said Chandler, an information systems manager.
He added: "He doesn't get any points for being black."
But Elaine Rogers, also a black Democrat, says her support for Steele is based partly on her appreciation of the Ehrlich administration. A retired mental health research technician, she has also been impressed by Steele's campaign advertisements - which emphasize the lieutenant governor's engaging personality.
"I saw him on TV, ... and his message was very eye-opening," said Rogers, 65, of Clinton. "He came across as being a sincere person, and his programs consist of things that I thought would help my community."