Saturday, July 30, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — When Mahmoud Baptiste, a black man and solid Democratic voter, casts his ballot in the U.S. Senate race next year, his decision won’t be based on the race of the two candidates, even if Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is the Republican candidate and Democrats pick a white nominee.

“I would look at Steele,” Mr. Baptiste said, adding that so far, “Steele hasn’t impressed me.”

Still, the fact that Mr. Baptiste would even consider voting for the lieutenant governor is an encouraging sign for Republicans, who usually get only 10 percent to 12 percent of the black vote in statewide elections.

Mr. Steele is mulling over a bid for the Senate next year. Republican leaders hope Maryland’s first black lieutenant governor will take on the challenge and peel away some of the support from the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency.

Democrat Kweisi Mfume, the only black Democrat seeking his party’s Senate nomination, raised the issue in a speech July 14 in Chicago.

He warned his party that if he loses the nomination and Mr. Steele is the Republican nominee, many black voters will consider crossing over to the Republican Party.

None of a dozen black voters interviewed recently by the Associated Press in Annapolis, Baltimore and Hagerstown said he or she would vote for Mr. Steele just because of his race. But some of them would maintain an open mind on his candidacy and see the possibility of blacks crossing over to vote for Mr. Steele.

Republicans don’t have to carve out too much of the black vote to be competitive in a state where Democrats usually dominate statewide elections.

“If Michael Steele got 25 percent of the African-American vote, he would probably win,” said Kevin Igoe, a Maryland Republican political consultant.

Nationally and in Maryland, Republicans are making a strong effort to lure black voters from the Democratic Party. The primary strategy is to target black churches as a platform to tout Republican issues, such as support of faith-based funding and opposition to homosexual rights.

They have had limited success so far, and voters such as Tom and Yvonne Parson of Hagerstown are one reason why.

“I’d vote Democrat even if he was rotten as a skunk,” said Mrs. Parson, a minister in the Jonathan Street House of Prayer. “I have strong feelings toward Democrats because, when there’s Democrats in office, I seem to do better.”

Her husband said he would not consider voting for Mr. Steele, explaining, “I don’t care if he is black. He’s a Republican.”

Shirley Wells, a receptionist at an Annapolis recreation center where Mr. Baptiste is program director, is another loyal black Democratic voter.

Told of Mr. Mfume’s comments that some black voters may defect to the Republican Party, Miss Wells said, “I won’t be one of them.”

But black Baltimore lawyer Terrence Artis said there are “more and more African Americans who are evaluating the candidate and not the party.”

“Blacks will look at the candidate and issues and make an informed decision,” he said. “That’s a wake-up call for the Democrats.”

• Associated Press writers David Dishneau in Hagerstown and Taunya English in Baltimore contributed to this report.

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