- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2006

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama joined Maryland’s top Democrats yesterday to rally for Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin’s run for the U.S. Senate in a display of party unity that also highlighted the state party’s lack of black candidates for statewide office.

The most prominent black Democrats among more than 50 elected officials on the outdoor stage at the University of Maryland College Park were Mr. Obama of Illinois and Kweisi Mfume, the former National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president, who lost Maryland’s Democratic primary for the Senate to Mr. Cardin.

Mr. Obama, the country’s only black senator, dismissed the Republican Senate nominee — Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the first black elected statewide in Maryland — as “the guy [with] that local news anchor style.”

“I bet he does like puppies,” Mr. Obama said, referring to Mr. Steele’s TV ads. “But that is not what this election is about. The election is about the future. The election is about health care. The election is about education. The election is about getting our troops out of Iraq.”

Mr. Mfume delivered his most enthusiastic endorsement yet of Mr. Cardin, saying he will make a “good senator.”

But he urged party leaders not to ignore their base in black communities or the lack of black candidates at the top of the Democratic ticket.

“The Democratic ticket of four nominees for statewide office … still looks like the Democratic ticket for state office in 1956,” Mr. Mfume said to cheers from the crowd of about 1,000. “We have a problem. … We have got to find a way that African Americans and other minorities are represented statewide in office.”

He later told The Washington Times that if Democrats do not address the race issue, “Republicans will continue to take the high ground on inclusion and diversity.”

Mr. Cardin focused his remarks on Mr. Steele’s supposed alignment with President Bush.

“Michael Steele stands with George Bush,” he said. “I stand with the people of Maryland.”

Mr. Cardin said that Mr. Steele supports the president on the Iraq war, privatizing Social Security, reducing college tuition grants for the poor and blocking lower prescription-drug prices.

Mr. Steele has called on Mr. Bush to accelerate an exit strategy for Iraq, increase the number of college grants and approve low-cost imports of prescription drugs. The lieutenant governor has not taken a position on the president’s plan to partially privatize Social Security, which lost momentum and was shelved by the administration last year.

The jabs by Mr. Cardin followed the Democrat’s strategy of trying to present Mr. Steele as a “typical Republican” with links to Mr. Bush so that voters will not view him as a black candidate.

Race is a key issue in the contest between Mr. Cardin, 62, a white 10-term congressman from Baltimore, and Mr. Steele, 47.

Black voters account for much of the Democrat’s 2-to-1 advantage over Republicans in voter registration.

Mr. Steele’s ability to forge inroads to black communities has made Maryland’s Senate race one of the most closely watched races in the country and one of the most hard-fought campaigns between the national parties.

Mr. Steele, who was touring several Metro stations in Prince George’s County yesterday, said that he was not offended by Mr. Obama because he was “doing what his party has asked him to do.”

He noted that Mr. Obama this month also campaigned for Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, a former Ku Klux Klan member.

Mr. Steele said that the Democratic Party eventually will have to confront Mr. Mfume’s criticism.

Mr. Steele, who leads Mr. Cardin in fundraising, said Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder would hold a fundraiser for him Saturday.

• Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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