Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is criticizing his Democratic opponent in Maryland’s Senate race, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, for repeatedly invoking Hurricane Katrina to stir anti-Republican sentiment among blacks.
“Don’t try to run around saying, ‘You don’t like George Bush, and everybody knows it, so vote for me,’” said Mr. Steele, a Republican and the first black elected to statewide office in Maryland. “That’s not a solution to a failing Baltimore city school. That’s not a solution to a homeowner who is trying to get a home loan. That’s not a solution to a kid who is in a drug-rehab program.”
Mr. Steele, 47, also said that Mr. Cardin, 62, “needs to come to where the rest of us live and walk the walk we walk every day, and realize that George Bush isn’t there, and neither has been Ben.”
Mr. Cardin, a white 10-term congressman from Baltimore, told reporters his references to Katrina and pledge to “never, ever leave Americans behind” was not an attempt to discredit Mr. Steele in the eyes of black voters.
“It is about the failure of government to protect its most vulnerable citizens,” he said.
Mr. Cardin pledged nearly a year ago not to use to racial attacks against Mr. Steele.
However, the federal government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans has, for some, come to symbolize the Bush administration’s supposed neglect of poor, black residents.
Racially tinged jabs have been part of the race since Mr. Steele entered it.
In November, black Democratic leaders — including state Sen. Verna L. Jones, Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland chairman — said Mr. Steele invited comparisons to an “Oreo” or an “Uncle Tom” because he is a black Republican.
Mr. Cardin said last week he was not race-baiting when talking about the hurricane and the Bush administration’s response to it because such topics are key issues in the contest.
The references to Katrina and President Bush also keep with the campaign strategy outlined by the Democratic National Committee in a recent internal memo.
“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. Cardin evoked Katrina during his victory speech after the primary and in a campaign stop last week in Baltimore, where both candidates are vying for supporters of Kweisi Mfume.
Mr. Mfume, past president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, lost to Mr. Cardin in the Democratic primary. But he won by tens of thousands of votes in Baltimore and Prince George’s County — two of the state’s most populous and heavily Democratic jurisdictions, which also are more than 65 percent black.
Those Mfume voters are key in the Nov. 7 election.
Mr. Cardin depends on black voters to preserve the Democratic Party’s dominance in Maryland, where blacks account for most of the party’s 2-to-1 advantage over Republicans in voter registration.
Maryland has nearly 900,000 registered Republicans and about 1.7 million registered Democrats, of which an estimated 700,000 are black.
Mr. Steele’s potential to break the Democratic lock on black votes has made the Senate race one of the country’s most closely watched and one of the most fiercely fought between the national parties.
The race is now a dead heat, largely because of black support for Mr. Steele, according to a SurveyUSA poll last week for WUSA-TV (Channel 9).
Mr. Steele received 33 percent of black support in the poll and led Mr. Cardin 48 percent to 47 percent, within the survey’s margin of error or 4.4 percent.