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June 2, 2005

The Democrats' Dilemma

John P. Snyder

This week, Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele is expected to announce the formation of an exploratory committee to assess the basis of his possible candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Good news for those who believe in a strong two-party system.

Charles McC. Mathias, from Frederick, was the last Republican U.S. senator from Maryland. He retired in 1986. Although a well refined gentleman, he is also remembered by Republicans as one of the foremost RINO'S (Republican in name only) of recent memory. Since then Maryland's Senate seats have been handed to the Democrats with little opposition.

Not this time around.

The lieutenant governor would be a formidable candidate because he has an appealing persona, an articulate approach and is a relatively fresh face in Maryland politics.

Some call him ultra-conservative. Why? It's because he is staunchly pro-life. He is conservative the same way most Americans are. He holds the same views that dominate the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. He can hog the middle all he wants because he doesn't have any voting record. The question for this election is whether the Democratic nominee - be it Ben Cardin, Kweisi Mfume or Chris Van Hollen - is too liberal for the state.

As it happens Mr. Steele is African American. The reality of political life is that race will always be a major factor.

Another reality is that Democrats must always stir the race-based pot in order to motivate the black vote to show up Election Day. Many will recall the ugly last days of the 1998 governor's race when Parris Glendening played the race card by insisting Ellen Sauerbrey was a racist. Recall Al Gore telling black audiences in 2000 that a Bush Administration would turn back the clock on civil rights advances.

How will they motivate their black base if their opponent is African American? Call him an"Uncle Tom" as State Senate President Mike Miller did? Hand out Oreo's as Democrats did when Mr. Steele spoke during the 2002 election? It's a high stakes game for the Democrats. Over play the race card, as they did in 2002, and they place a normally safe Senate seat at risk.

Mr. Steele will have the full backing of the Republican money machine, too be sure. With Gov. Robert Ehrlich amassing a huge war chest, Republicans will have ample time to give Mr. Steele a sizable purse to compete statewide. Between the two, they will have enough muscle to get their message out and have a statewide network of paid staff to motivate the base and register new voters. On board to direct will be Republican miracle man Karl Rove, who knows a thing or two about winning elections.

Democrats, on the other hand, face a possible three way slugfest. Each candidate has enough downsides to give their opponents ammunition during the primary. Whoever survives has a 10 week window between the primary and the general election to heal wounds and focus on Mr. Steele, unless the Democrats in the General Assembly change the primary election day to June. If the primary remains in September, the Democrats must wonder if the primary winner will have any money left.

Help from the Move crowd and George Soros' moneybags will be available, but they all have losing records. Would a Mfume loss in the primary depress the black vote in November 2006?

Could Mr. Mfume appeal to a statewide audience? If Mr. Van Hollen prevails, will his liberal Montgomery County roots be a problem? Who is Ben Cardin?

Democrats shouldn't really be worried though. That two-to-one voter registration bulge is just too hard to overcome.

Everyone knows that once you register Democratic, you never leave the party, and everyone will show up to vote. Won't they? Yes, yes, of course they will.

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