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Must Love Dogs

By Russ Smith | Posted 10/4/2006

Upon watching for the first time Michael Steele’s television advertisement about his love for puppies, I wondered what lamebrain media consultant convinced his campaign to waste precious dollars on it. I was surprised then when my wife and two sons, who usually hate political spots, couldn’t stop laughing when they saw Steele and the Boston terrier together on the TV screen. "I love puppies, too," my younger son (12) said, and his mother agreed. Nicky, a 13-year-old fledgling filmmaker who takes pride in his apolitical "indie cred" and, when he pays attention, tends to drift to anti-war Democrats, changed his tune and claimed if he were old enough he’d vote for Steele because "that guy’s got a really good imagination."

I was also taken aback that Ben Cardin’s team, aided by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, took Steele’s bait and responded quickly with its own ad with a narrator saying, "Michael Steele, he likes puppies, but he loves George Bush." As reported in the Sept. 27 Sun, the Democrats have booked "nearly" $1 million--so far--in television time to convince Maryland voters that Steele supported the Iraq war and is against abortion and embryonic stem-cell research. That’s standard political advertising, and will resonate among the state’s citizens who’ve already decided on Cardin, but it’s clear that local and national Democrats are nervous about the "good guy" persona Steele’s projecting.

It wasn’t supposed to unfold this way, not in a state with a nearly two-to-one Democratic advantage and a candidate in Cardin who’s not only reliably liberal, but also a 20-year U.S. House representative with a reputation for intelligence, exemplary work habits, and a personal life beyond reproach. Steele’s slight record as an elected official and his cultural conservatism was expected to make this race a slam dunk for the Democrats, who, depending on how much validity you give the almost-daily polls, have a decent shot at winning a U.S. Senate majority in the midterm elections.

So why are national Democrats at least privately nervous about the outcome in Maryland? There are two factors, I think, and the most important is Cardin’s defeated primary rival Kweisi Mfume’s so-far tepid support of his party’s candidate. At a Democratic "unity" rally at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus on Sept. 27, Mfume said once again that Cardin would make a "damn good senator," but his enthusiasm didn’t match that of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (D), the first-termer whose oratory and youth left Cardin in the shadows. Obama said of Steele, "I know [Steele] is taller, and he’s got that kind of local news anchor style about him. . . . But I tell you what, that’s not what this election is about."

Mfume, on the other hand, took the opportunity to remind the assembled that Democrats, in a state where African-Americans make up almost 28 percent of the population, haven’t yet (unlike the Republicans) fielded a black candidate for statewide office. He said, "When the Democratic ticket for statewide office in 2006 still looks like one from 1956, we have a problem. . . . We’ve got to find a way that African-Americans and other minorities are represented statewide in office."

Mfume, like Obama, is charismatic and, accordingly, sometimes given to hyperbole--Martin O’Malley’s running mate in the gubernatorial election, Del. Anthony Brown, is black--but his reference to "1956," when Maryland was mostly segregated, doesn’t help Cardin. Unless Mfume takes an active role in Cardin’s campaign, stumping for the candidate in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, there’s a possibility that a number of alienated black residents will turn to Steele, or simply not vote at all.

Dan Rodricks, in his Sept. 24 Sun column, touched on the conundrum Cardin faces, writing about Billy Murphy, a black, Democratic lawyer, who ran for mayor against William Donald Schaefer in 1983 and was creamed in that primary. Rodricks laments that Murphy, who has endorsed Steele, isn’t running himself to speak up for the "other Baltimore." The columnist mentions a comment Murphy made at a recent Steele rally: "Like so many people who have come out today, I’m sick and tired of being taken for granted by the Democratic Party. I’m sick and tired of being relied upon for support but not respected as a leader."

Democrats mock Steele for not identifying himself as a Republican in his advertising, as well as distancing himself from President Bush. But that’s just smart politics in 2006, with Bush’s approval rating in Maryland even lower than the national average. Steele’s self-portrayal of an "outsider" who will fight the "special interests" in Washington may seem disingenuous--he’s accepted contributions, as has Cardin, from political action committees--but what kind of campaign do his opponents expect him to run? An exuberant endorsement of the war, an end of the estate tax, alignment with Bush’s controversial intelligence methods, and the opinion that women who choose to have an abortion are damned to hell? That’s straight out of Alan Keyes’ playbook, but Steele is far too savvy for such a divisive approach in a "blue" state.

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