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A toss-up in Maryland?

Charlie Cook has changed his call on the Maryland Senate race from “leans Democratic” to “toss-up.”
Here’s how Cook sees it:

Despite a crowded September 12 Democratic primary, most political observers have looked at this race as the incumbent party’s to lose. Maryland is a solid blue state that hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since 1980 and the political climate should only make this race harder for Steele.
Still, most have underestimated Steele’s appeal as a candidate. Steele is among the GOP’s few Senate recruiting successes. He is charismatic and possesses the gift of being able to connect with voters easily. He has been a surprisingly strong fundraiser, bringing in nearly $6.5 million as of September 30. Steele has also run a solid campaign, the highlight of which has been his television ads.
Most of the spots feature Steele against a blank backdrop with minimal props and speaking directly to the camera. He uses humor in some and indignation in others. Most of all, Steele taps into and articulates voters’ frustrations with Washington better than most Democratic candidates. He also uses the ads to speak directly to Cardin, something I don’t often see in ads these days. Steele has worked to portray Cardin as part of the problem in Washington, citing his 20-year tenure in Congress.
As important, Steele has not let Democratic attacks go unanswered. He tried to inoculate himself–and voters–against inevitable Democratic attacks with his “Steele Hates Puppies” ad. When Democrats launched an ad featuring actor Michael J. Fox to criticize Steele’s position on stem cell research, the Republican responded immediately with a spot in which his sister, a physician with multiple sclerosis, sets the record straight on her brother’s position while criticizing Cardin for his ad.
Another of Steele’s assets is his ability to attract African-America votes. The Democratic primary exposed the fissures in the party between its leadership and African Americans, many of whom feel that the party has taken their support for granted. Cardin took 44 percent of the vote to 41 percent for former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume. Cardin outspent Mfume by a wide margin, making Mfume’s showing all the more impressive and providing an opening for Steele, who has spent considerable time courting black voters, especially in Prince George’s County.
Some African-American leaders in the Democratic Party, including Mfume, have rallied around Cardin, but others have supported Steele. Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons cut a radio ad for Steele and Mfume’s son endorsed him. But, if Cardin has not yet locked up the percentage of the African-American vote that almost any Democrat should get, he might not have helped himself this week. After posting a poor performance at a debate on Wednesday, Cardin bowed out of a debate Thursday sponsored by the NAACP. It is understandable that Cardin might have wanted some time to regroup after a below par showing, but perhaps the NAACP wasn’t the group to cancel on.
Apart from the debate, Cardin is a very solid candidate. He has served 10 terms in Congress, accumulating an accomplished record and a reputation as a thoughtful voice on health care, trade and tax issues who can work across the aisle. He has won re-election to his Baltimore County-based 3 rd congressional district easily and had raised nearly $6.8 million for this race as of September 30. Cardin’s only flaw is that he does not possess much charisma, something that is magnified when he stands next to Steele. While some candidates try to turn this into an asset, Cardin’s dull persona almost overwhelms his message in his television ads.
Democrats have worked to tie Steele to President Bush on a host of issues, especially the war in Iraq and some social issues. Steele has responded, but in this political environment in a blue state, Cardin has no doubt inflicted some damage. The question is whether these attacks are as effective when targeting an African American like Steele who has never held federal office and does not have a voting record as they would be when aimed at a white candidate? The answer may prove to be a decisive factor in the outcome of the race.
Polling taken since the end of September has been inconsistent. Voter/Consumer Research, a Republican firm, has released two surveys. The first conducted September 27-28 of 602 likely voters, showed Cardin ahead by five points, 44 percent to 39 percent. The second taken this week (October 22-23 of 602 likely voters) had a narrower gap of just two points, 41 percent for Cardin and 39 percent for Steele. Another Republican poll, this one conducted by Public Opinion Strategies (October 2-4 of 800 likely voters) had Cardin leading, 47 percent to 43 percent.
Democrats are touting two surveys that show wider margins and have Cardin above 50 percent. The first is a USA Today /Gallup poll (September 27-October 1 of 678 likely voters) that gave Cardin a 15-point advantage, 54 percent to 39 percent. A Garin-Hart-Yang Research poll for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (October 23-24 of 602 likely voters) and released after Republicans put out their numbers had Cardin up by 12 points, 52 percent to 40 percent.
These differing results aren’t easily explained so it’s time to pull out the tried and true, patented Cook Political Report Law of Polling Averages. These five polls combine to give Cardin an average lead of 7.6 points, which would seem to make sense.
One question is whether the national Republican Party will get involved in the race now that polls show a closer-than-expected contest? Advertising in Maryland, particularly in the Washington, DC media market, can be expensive and there are only 11 days left. If the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee or the Republican National Committee does become engaged in the next few days, they could make a difference just by matching what national Democrats have spent and launching some attacks on Cardin.
Running in a difficult political climate for Republicans in a very blue state makes it difficult, though not entirely impossible, for Steele to close the deal, but he has been the more impressive candidate with the superior campaign in this race. This, combined with the recent polls, merits a rating change from Lean Democratic to Toss Up.

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