Steele cuts Cardin's lead nearly in half

Democrat holding a 6-point advantage

Maryland Votes 2006

Sun Poll

November 02, 2006|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,SUN REPORTER

The race for Maryland's open U.S. Senate seat has narrowed, but Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin holds a 6-point edge, the result of firm support among black voters and strong leads in Baltimore and suburban Washington, according to a new poll for The Sun.

Cardin is ahead of Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, 49 percent to 43 percent, with 5 percent of voters undecided less than a week before the election. The Baltimore congressman's lead has been cut nearly in half, however, since a September Sun survey showed him with an 11-point advantage.

Still, Cardin has solidified his backing among African-American voters, a traditionally Democratic constituency that Steele, the state's highest-ranking black official, has vigorously courted.

Steele is doing well with white voters and rural residents. Steele also appears to have benefited from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s recent gains in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, indicating that the Republican incumbent could have coattails.

"The better Ehrlich does, the better Steele will do," said Keith Haller, whose Bethesda firm, Potomac Inc., conducted the telephone poll of 800 likely voters contacted Oct. 28-Oct. 30. The survey has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Kevin Zeese, who has the nominations of the Green, Libertarian and Populist parties, garnered 2 percent of the vote, the poll shows.

A former chairman of the state GOP, Steele has proved a challenging foil for the more experienced Cardin, a 10-term congressman and former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates. Despite his ties to President Bush, whose top officials persuaded Steele to run and have raised money for him, the lieutenant governor has pitched himself as an independent voice, largely through a splashy television campaign.

Steele also appeared the more genial of the two during a recent debate on NBC's Meet the Press, even though moderator Tim Russert questioned the lieutenant governor aggressively on abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Steele is opposed to both, making him more conservative than the majority of Maryland voters.

"Steele just comes across a whole lot better on TV," said Zach Messitte, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

Some black registered Democrats say they are looking past party affiliation to support Steele because he is black, arguing that their party has banked on their support for too long without promoting African-Americans on its statewide ticket.

Aaron Wilkes, a Democrat from Baltimore who is black, said he supported former NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume in his party's Senate primary but that he'll cast a vote for Steele next week, not Cardin. A 39-year-old state employee, Wilkes said he is willing to overlook policy differences with Steele - on the Iraq war for example, which Steele supports - to make his point.

"The Democratic Party took my vote for granted," Wilkes said. "I felt by voting for Mr. Steele, it would show the Democrats my vote couldn't be taken for granted."

Though the Steele campaign has sought to fuel dissatisfaction among black voters with the Democratic Party, the poll shows Cardin has increased his lead among African-American voters since September.

The survey indicates that 74 percent of blacks back Cardin, compared with 12 percent for Steele. The last poll showed that 64 percent were for Cardin and 23 percent supported Steele.

The Sun poll is modeled on 19 percent black turnout, Haller said.

White voters, meanwhile, prefer Steele - as they do Ehrlich. Steele has a 7-point advantage over Cardin among whites.

But how white voters answer a phone survey could differ from how they vote when an African- American candidate is on the ballot, Messitte said.

Polls are not always accurate when it comes to attitudes about race, Messitte said. "When they have to actually vote, they vote a different way," he said.

Stanley Lechner, a Baltimore Republican who is supporting Ehrlich, said he will vote Tuesday for Cardin. He said he does not approve of Steele's opposition to abortion rights and funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Lechner, a veteran who voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004 and who is white, also said he believes Steele's television ads, which criticize Cardin for taking special-interest money, are misleading.

"I don't think he's Senate material," Lechner, 75, said of Steele.

Though Ehrlich and Steele have avoided each other on the campaign trail, the lieutenant governor has picked up support in communities where the governor is performing well, including Ehrlich's home county of Baltimore, which Cardin represents in Congress.

Voters in Baltimore County support Steele over Cardin, 51 percent to 40 percent. Ehrlich's strong support there four years ago carried him into the governor's office.

"It looks like Steele is starting to emulate the Ehrlich base in the Baltimore suburbs and in other parts of the state," Haller said.

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