- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin has increased his lead in the contest for the Democratic nomination in Maryland’s U.S. Senate race and likely Republican nominee Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele remains highly competitive in any general election matchup, a poll released today shows.

Likely voters in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary now favor Mr. Cardin over ex-Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a former National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president, by 43 percent to 30 percent, according to a statewide poll by nonpartisan Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies.

In the general election, the poll found Mr. Steele trailing Mr. Cardin 44 percent to 39 percent and beating Mr. Mfume 42 percent to 38 percent.

“I think it means that [Mr. Steele] is in a competitive position,” said Patrick Gonzales, chief pollster and president of the Annapolis-based firm that performed the survey. “His campaign is fairly well-positioned right now.”

Mr. Gonzales credited Mr. Cardin’s recent TV ads with expanding his lead. “Money can make a big difference in politics if you’ve got it to get your message out,” he said.

However, Josh Rales garnered just 6 percent of the Democratic primary vote in the poll, despite spending more than $4.4 million — most of it from his personal fortune from real estate investments — saturating the state with his TV ads since June.

Other polls have produced different results.

A survey in June by The Washington Post found Mr. Mfume ahead of Mr. Cardin by 6 percentage points.

A poll by Zogby International distributed through the Wall Street Journal this week showed Mr. Rales beating Mr. Steele 45.7 percent to 42.2 percent. That poll showed Mr. Cardin and Mr. Mfume beating Mr. Steele by about 9 percentage points and about 4 percentage points, respectively.

The Zogby poll did not gauge the primary contest. The Gonzales surveys of 621 likely Democratic primary voters and 843 potential general election voters was conducted Aug. 18 to 25.

The poll of likely primary voters had a margin of error of 4 percent. The general election survey had a margin of error of 3.5 percent.

The poll also showed Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, trailing Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, 46 percent to 42 percent in the race for governor. Those numbers are virtually unchanged since a Gonzales poll in April.

President Bush’s job-approval rating was 36 percent in the current poll, up from an all-time low in Maryland of 29 percent in April.

Voter attitude toward Mr. Bush’s handling of the Iraq war also improved since April, up from a 24 percent approval rating to 32 percent. Most Marylanders — 63 percent — still disapprove of his handling of the war.

The president’s scant popularity and widespread opposition to the war in Maryland, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1, have been viewed as major drawbacks for Mr. Steele and Mr. Ehrlich, who won the governor’s office for their party after more than three decades of Democratic rule.

In Mr. Cardin’s TV ads, he stresses that he “stood up to President Bush” on the Iraq war.

“Marylanders are sick of the president’s misguided policies, and Ben Cardin is the strongest candidate to keep this seat in the Democratic column,” Cardin campaign spokesman Oren Shur said.

“It’s clear that Michael Steele does not want to face Ben Cardin in this November’s election.”

Mr. Cardin has increased his lead over Mr. Mfume from 8 percentage points in a Gonzales poll in April to 13 percentage points in the current poll.

Mr. Steele, who is the first black elected to statewide office in Maryland, has closed the gap with Mr. Cardin from 14 percentage points in the April poll to 5 percentage points in the current survey.

Mr. Steele also has overtaken Mr. Mfume after trailing him 44 percent to 39 percent in April.

Steele campaign spokeswoman Melissa Sellers said the poll confirmed his potential to be the first Republican that Maryland has sent to the Senate in 26 years.

“This will undoubtedly continue to be a close race, but more and more Marylanders are ready for change in Washington, and they are supporting Michael Steele,” she said.

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