Watching Maryland's amazing race for the U.S. Senate

October 25, 2006|By C. Fraser Smith

This year's U.S. Senate matchup in Maryland features two men who have worked miracles of political repackaging.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, almost a r?sum?-free candidate, has somehow made himself competitive in a race for the U.S. Senate. Give a nod to the power of slick and folksy TV commercials.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a man of almost studied grayness, steps up with an edge. The nod here goes to Mr. Cardin's evolving as a candidate during the Democratic primary. Going in, there were those who said Mr. Cardin never had a tough race, always had it handed to him politically - wasn't going to be tough enough. He's putting all of that to rest.

Polls suggest Mr. Cardin will win. And he should. To elect Mr. Steele would be to declare the death of experience, the irrelevance of knowledge and the futility of legislative skill - and to do it at a time when the nation is imperiled by forces that threaten its future.

The nation needs its best minds working for the best available solutions in a world full of opponents - and even some friends - who doubt America's values.

Whatever one thinks about the state of affairs in Washington, the Senate remains a legislative body. Mr. Steele's assertion that he can be a change agent is based on not a single moment of membership in such a body, not a single problem solved or impasse broken.

He offers himself primarily as an affable man. In that, he succeeds well enough. Opponents, he says in his most famous ad, will attack him in every conceivable way. They will say he hates puppies. But, of course, his opponents have made no such charge. It's a straw puppy, set up for knocking down.

With the help of his advisers, he has succeeded admirably in ducking any significant exchange with Mr. Cardin on the issues of abortion, the war in Iraq, embryonic stem cell research or the trade imbalance. If ducking adroitly is a virtue, Mr. Steele and his handlers have succeeded.

He is a candidate who has gained traction by running against Washington. It's a dodge that never wears out. Here again, though, he gets high marks - since the Washington he is running against is controlled, from top to bottom, by his party, the Republicans. Both parties have had their difficulties, to be sure, but in this election season, the most damaging events have fallen at the feet of the GOP.

Republican Party forces, once very attentive to him, seem to have focused their efforts on other states, where holding the line against Democrats has a better chance of success. A Cardin victory seems more and more likely in a Democratic year.

For the record, there is a third candidate in the race, who is the nominee of the Green, Libertarian and Populist parties. But Kevin Zeese, as polished a performer as he may be, can hope for nothing more than a spoiler's role. He and his backers may find that a pleasing prospect, a step toward third-party relevance. It promises to be quite a small step, though, as most voters will want to have a say in the main event.

Mr. Steele's fate may rest on how much of the usually Democratic black vote he can attract. No surprise there. He will attract more of it than Republicans usually do, but it's not likely to be enough. Again, though, the kind of tidal wave necessary for Mr. Steele to win is more likely to be rolling in for Democrats.

Nevertheless, Mr. Steele's campaign bears considerable significance. If they weren't concerned about anything else, black voters could elect a black U.S. senator for its symbolic value. If Democratic Maryland elected a Republican, the symbolism would be even more powerful.

It's also a significant year because, for the first time in 30 years, the state will be represented in that seat by someone other than Paul S. Sarbanes, who is retiring. What are the odds that any state would have a chance to replace one brilliant U.S. senator with another of equally high regard and ability?

Whether he wins or loses, Ben Cardin's talent - and unexpected resolve - turned out to be a very strong match for the surprising Michael Steele's affability.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column normally appears Sundays. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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