After watching two high-profile African-Americans lose primary battles for spots on their statewide ticket, Democrats are fretting that black voters, the key to the party's chances in November, won't bother to vote.
Maryland Republicans are practically gleeful at the Democrats' situation. Much of the GOP's message less than six weeks before the election centers on the diversity of its statewide ticket, which features Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, an African-American, as its candidate for U.S. Senate, as well as women running for lieutenant governor and comptroller. The party is promoting the idea that Democrats take minorities - blacks in particular - for granted.
In the past few days, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s re-election campaign has targeted black voters with an appeal aimed at eroding support for his Democratic opponent, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, in the black community. A radio advertisement criticizes the city Police Department for large numbers of nuisance arrests that do not result in charges. The mayor and the city's police chief have defended the department's practices.
Democrats, including some of the party's top African-American leaders, insist that the GOP's claims to be the party of diversity are absurd. But they also say they worry that African-Americans, who historically turn out in low numbers, are seeing nothing in this election that will inspire them to vote.
"The Democratic Party has a diversity issue, and there's just no nice way to put it," said Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat who is African-American and chairs the House Economic Matters Committee.
"Will that result in some sort of defection from the party?" Davis said. "I don't think that's likely going to happen. But I think what the party probably has to be more concerned about is turnout. ... I'm not sure if the voters are there yet in the kind of numbers I think you're going to need."
Blacks make up about 29 percent of Maryland's population, according to the U.S. Census - the fifth-highest proportion in the country. A recent Sun poll shows that African-American voters still overwhelmingly support Democrats, although Ehrlich and Steele have made inroads.
The poll showed that O'Malley is leading Ehrlich among black voters, 71 percent to 16 percent. The margin for Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin against Steele is smaller, 65 percent to 24 percent. Ehrlich and O'Malley are white, though the mayor's running mate, Del. Anthony G. Brown, is black.
But the question for Democrats is not whether blacks will support their candidates but how many of them will vote, said Keith Haller, the president of Potomac Inc., which conducted the poll for The Sun.
The poll found both O'Malley and Cardin in the lead, but that conclusion - particularly for the mayor - rests on the assumption that nearly one in five voters will be black, Haller said.
That's about the proportion in previous gubernatorial elections, but Haller doubts the numbers will be that high this year.
"If African-American turnout drops by 10 or 15 percent, it has a dramatic effect on the Democrats' prospects," he said.
Both parties have spent much of the time since the September primary talking about black turnout, largely because Democrats had the opportunity to nominate one of the nation's most charismatic African-American leaders for U.S. Senate but didn't.
Since his narrow defeat in the primary, former congressman and NAACP head Kweisi Mfume has been at the center of the debate over black turnout, both for what he has said and for what Republicans have said about him.
Republicans are quick to point to comments Mfume made more than a year ago criticizing the party's white leaders for attempting a "coronation" of Cardin - who is white - for the Senate nomination.
Since the primary, Mfume has made no complaints about his treatment by party leadership, and he has publicly endorsed Cardin.
But at a College Park rally this week featuring the national Democratic Party's top African-American star, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, Mfume cautioned the party it needs to make clear to voters that it was not aiming for a mostly white ticket, and that the race of the nominees does not represent the diversity of the party or how it will be led in the future.
In an interview last week with D. Morton Glover, an African-American journalist who runs the Web site www.bmorenews .com, Mfume expounded on the problems the party faces in attracting black voters after he and Stuart O. Simms, a candidate for attorney general, lost their primary bids. The problem is compounded by the resources and attention that the national Republican Party is showering on Steele, Mfume said.
"The juxtaposition is interesting, daunting and poses significant challenges to the party of inclusion and diversity," Mfume said.