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Down to the Wire

By Russ Smith | Posted 11/1/2006

At the beginning of last week, just as it appeared Martin O'Malley and Ben Cardin were close to running out the clock and handily defeating their opponents for Maryland's gubernatorial and U.S. Senate seats, a confluence of events conspired to threaten upset wins by Republicans Robert Ehrlich and Michael Steele.

At this point, the polls are a jumble and probably not entirely reliable. No sooner had Scott Rasmussen released his survey--conducted Oct. 26--showing the mayor just three points ahead of the incumbent, and Cardin leading Steele by five points, and the Cook Political Report changed Maryland's senate contest from "leans Democratic" to "toss-up," than The Washington Post published its own poll with O'Malley and Cardin boasting 10 and 11 percentage advantages over their rivals. Nevertheless, both the Ehrlich and Steele camps had their best week of the campaign so far, owing to endorsements, debates, and the contentious issue of stem-cell research.

In this space last week I suggested that a Post endorsement of O'Malley was a forgone conclusion: My prediction on that score was just as misguided as assuming the Yankees would sweep the Tigers in the American League Division Series. It was stunning to read on Oct. 25 the Post's preference of Ehrlich over O'Malley, not only because the liberal high-circulation daily has waged a brutal battle against Virginia's Republican Sen. George Allen, but its editorial board has rarely been Ehrlich's advocate in the past four years (the paper endorsed Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend against Ehrlich four years ago).

Still, the endorsement reads, in part: "[Ehrlich] has chalked up successes on transportation, the environment, and education, among other things." That's an "achievement," the writer says, because of "the monolith of Democratic dominance in the state legislature." It's no secret that the Post preferred Doug Duncan over both Ehrlich and O'Malley, but while the editorial praised the mayor for the "progress" he's made in Baltimore, it also repeated oft-cited criticism of his "ambition" and worried that he's "Baltimore-centric, offering little of substance about the Washington area's problems, especially its choked roads and transit systems."

The Sun, in its endorsement of O'Malley on Oct. 29, was harsh toward the governor, citing his "testiness" (the editorial mentioned his blacklisting of two Sun employees, although not the paper's unsuccessful lawsuit against Ehrlich), and blamed his administration for spreading rumors about the mayor's personal life. It also claimed that while O'Malley has a "vision" for Maryland, Ehrlich's campaign "has been devoted primarily to portraying Baltimore as the seventh level of the netherworld." Hyperbolic, of course, but the O'Malley team's rhetoric about Ehrlich hasn't been without its own excesses.

Both The Sun and Post issued enthusiastic endorsements of Cardin. Yet Steele, after early stumbles, has run a remarkable campaign, far above the Cardin team's expectations, and has clearly bested the longtime congressman in the several debates they've engaged in. Last Sunday, on Meet the Press--rarely friendly territory for a Republican, unless you're John McCain--Steele came across, even under moderator Tim Russert's bulldog questioning, as a likable outsider who pledged to help break down the polarization of "red" and "blue" senators. That's probably a lot of bunk, but as an appeal to viewers who are tired of partisan bickering, it was a smart strategy. Cardin, on the other hand, was visibly nervous and gave confusing answers regarding his plan on how to extricate the United States from Iraq. (Steele was murky on that subject as well, but he was far more successful than his opponent in dissembling on the issue.)

The topic of stem-cell research has, in the last week, surfaced as a major "wedge" issue in the midterm elections, beginning when the actor Michael J. Fox appeared in advertisements for Cardin and fellow Democrats in Missouri and Wisconsin. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, said in the Maryland ad, "George Bush and Michael Steele would put limits on the most promising [embryonic] stem-cell research." Steele countered with ad featuring his sister Monica Turner, a doctor who has multiple sclerosis, accusing Cardin of "using the victim of a terrible disease to frighten people all for his own political gain." I think the commercials were a wash, and unlikely to change the minds of voters. As it happens, I agree with Cardin's view, but believe the demagoguery from the Democrats could backfire.

Sun columnist Dan Rodricks took a different position in his Oct. 29 column, saying that the House bill Cardin backed last year expanding funding research for embryonic stem-cell research--the bill was vetoed by Bush--was supported by a lot of "intelligent people, particularly scientists who see promise in the research." The Bush opposition, Rodricks claimed, was an example of religious ideology--an implied example of unintelligent people--trumping science.

Handicapping Maryland's major elections on Nov. 7 is difficult, but as of this writing I'd venture that Ehrlich has a 50 percent chance of winning re-election, with Steele at about 40 percent. In a Democratic state like Maryland, that's about as optimistic a scenario as supporters of the governor and lieutenant governor could hope for.

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