Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele’s assertive campaign for U.S. Senate since the Sept. 12 primary has prompted national Democrats to start running attack ads sooner than they had planned.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee originally bought $1 million worth of TV time for the two weeks leading up to the Nov. 7 general election, then decided to start running ads Tuesday, according to the Steele campaign.
“This is a clear indication of the national Democratic Party bosses’ scramble to maintain control over Maryland,” said Michael Leavitt, campaign manager for Mr. Steele, a Republican.
Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic committee did not return phone calls, but has said he will not comment on strategic decisions in the campaign for Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who defeated Kweisi Mfume in the Democratic primary.
Mr. Steele, the first black person elected to statewide office in Maryland, says the Democrats’ strategy against him was revealed as early as last spring when an internal party memo was leaked to the press.
The memo called Mr. Steele, 47, a “unique threat” to black voters’ loyalty to Democrats and advised Maryland Democrats to begin a “persuasion campaign … as soon as possible to discredit Steele as a viable candidate for the community.”
“Connecting Steele to national Republicans … can turn Steele into a typical Republican in the eyes of voters, as opposed to an African American candidate,” the memo stated.
Mr. Steele also points to the illegal theft of his credit report by a Democratic committee staffer a year ago, before he had declared his candidacy. The staffer pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in federal court and was sentenced to community service.
“The fact that they had to steal it speaks to the fear that they have of my campaign,” Mr. Steele said recently. “Quite frankly, the only way they think they can beat me is to, as they said in their own memo, denigrate and demonize me.”
Mr. Cardin, 62, rarely attacked Mr. Mfume, past president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, whom he defeated by three percentage points.
But the congressman from Baltimore has been following the Democratic memo’s advice by attacking Mr. Steele for supporting President Bush’s policies.
“We can’t allow this seat just to be another vote for President Bush,” Mr. Cardin said in a speech in Catonsville last week.
The state Democratic Party has set up a Web site called “The Real Steele” that has multiple pictures of Mr. Steele on stage with Mr. Bush at a fundraiser last year.
The latest Steele TV ad, in which Mr. Steele warns voters that critics will go as far as accusing him of not liking puppies is intended to blunt the effect of such criticisms and images.
“Soon your TV will be jammed with negative ads from the Washington crowd — grainy pictures and spooky music saying ‘Steele hates puppies’ and worse,” Mr. Steele says in the ad. He then pauses and says playfully, “For the record, I love puppies.”
The ad was created by Brad Todd at On Message Inc., in Alexandria, after a conversation with Mr. Steele, who came up with the puppy idea. Mr. Todd is partners with Alex Castellanos, a longtime media consultant to the Republican Party.
Mr. Steele also has held several campaign events aimed at cutting into Mr. Cardin’s built-in support among black voters in Baltimore.
The day after the primary, Mr. Steele stopped for a haircut in the primarily black section of Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood.
Mr. Cardin, who is white and Jewish, has represented the neighborhood, which includes a section to the north that is heavily Jewish, for 20 years.
Mr. Steele told the crowd outside the barbershop, “When I go to the United States Senate, I will represent both sides of Park Heights. You’re going with me to Washington.”
Mr. Mfume’s son, Christopher, attended a rally in Baltimore last week for Mr. Steele, and endorsed his candidacy.
The Steele campaign has also criticized Mr. Cardin after a staffer was discovered Sept. 15 to have posted racist and anti-Semitic comments on an online blog. The unidentified staffer has since been fired.