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Will Maryland Blacks Turn Out for Cardin?

At the beginning of 2006, Republicans had hopes that three high profile African-American candidates could provide the party of Lincoln with major breakthroughs and begin the process of chipping away at the Democratic Party's stranglehold on the black vote. Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and former Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swann's campaigns for governor received most of the early attention. Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele was always the third candidate mentioned in this group of African-American GOP prospects, though he was generally thought to be a considerable long shot to succeed Senator Paul Sarbanes in overwhelmingly Democratic Maryland.

But with Labor Day fast upon us, it looks like Mr. Steele is the one who has the best, and perhaps only, shot of winning this fall. While Messrs. Blackwell and Swann have faltered, Mr. Steele has quietly put himself in position to pull off an upset in November. A poll released this week by Maryland-based Gonzales Research shows Mr. Steele trailing Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin by five points, 44% to 39%, and ahead of former Congressman Kweisi Mfume by four points, 42% to 38%. The Democratic primary will occur on September 12 and despite a current consensus to the contrary, it could turn out to be a lose-lose contest for the Dems.

The polling is split on which Democrat has the edge in the party's internal nomination battle -- Gonzales Research has Mr. Cardin ahead, SurveyUSA has Mr. Mfume in front. And the contest has its own racial dimension, with Mr. Mfume, a former NAACP president, complaining about a white-controlled Democratic machine trying to hand the nomination to Mr. Cardin. Most analysts feel that Mr. Steele would have a solid shot against Mr. Mfume in the general, and the polling tends to bear that out, with Mr. Steele running anywhere from 5 to 10 points better against Mr. Mfume than Mr. Cardin.

However, if Mr. Cardin holds on to win after what has been a racially tinged primary against Mr. Mfume, Democrats could face the very real prospect of a disappointed African-American base in the fall. One of the key reasons Governor Bob Ehrlich was able to become the first Republican in over 40 years to win the Maryland statehouse was an unenthusiastic black vote for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2002.

With Mr. Steele having just picked up a high-profile endorsement from hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, if Mr. Cardin is the Democratic nominee, Mr. Steele is poised to capture a quarter to a third of Maryland's very large African-American vote. That means the conventional wisdom may be wrong on Maryland's Senate race: A primary win by Mr. Cardin might be what Michael Steele needs to pull off the upset.