Maryland Primary Not About Race, Voters Say

Democrats are torn over the top two choices in the Maryland Senate primary: Congressman Ben Cardin, who is white, and former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who is black. Many voters, however, insist that the contest is not about race.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

And in Maryland, voters will be selecting candidates to replace retiring Democratic Senator Paul Sarbanes. In this overwhelmingly Democratic state, 18 candidates are vying for the party's nomination. The two frontrunners are Congressman Ben Cardin and Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and NAACP president.

On the surface, race seems to be the key issue. Allison Keyes has our report.

Representative BEN CARDIN (Democrat, Maryland): How are you doing? Ben Cardin. Need your help on Tuesday in the elections for U.S. Senate.

ALLISON KEYES: At Baltimore's legendary Lexington Market, potential voters lining up to get lunch watched as Democrat Ben Cardin shook hands. The congressman walked beside veteran African American politicians from the city, including circuit court clerk Frank Conaway.

Many in the crowd, especially blacks, greeted Cardin's colleagues like royalty, even if they were still deciding whom to vote for.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) whoever come out of this (unintelligible) between you and Kweisi, then I've got his back.

Mr. CARDIN: Okay, okay.

Unidentified Man: Mr. Conaway. I do know him.

Mr. CARDIN: He's a good guy.

Unidentified Man: So anytime he's standing with you, I know you're a good man, too.

Mr. CARDIN: Thank you.

KEYES: Many here, like Baltimore resident Wayne Benser(ph), say they've made up their minds in this campaign strictly on the issues. Benser says Cardin's his man, regardless of the fact that they're both white.

Mr. WAYNE BENSER (Voter): I like the way he is against the war, the spending for the war. I think he's been good here for Maryland for years and I think he'll do great.

KEYES: Baltimore warehouse worker Brevard McCullough(ph) says he supports Kweisi Mfume, but not because they're both black. He says he likes Mfume's experience, his opposition to the war, and his pledges to help people. McCullough says a recent televised debate is what convinced him.

Mr. BREVARD MCCULLOUGH (Voter): Cardin (unintelligible) his own platform. Mfume would say something and then he would say, Well, like he said, like he said, like he said. Right? I got tired of hearing him say, like he said.

KEYES: The two frontrunners do have similar positions on the issues. Both oppose the war in Iraq. Both have discussed the need to improve healthcare and the economy, and both have emphasized the need for a chain to the nation's leadership.

In an interview with NPR, Cardin sought to highlight their differences.

Mr. CARDIN: I'm running based upon my record, my ability to get things done. There's been major bills that have been enacted, including adding preventive healthcare cancer screenings to the Medicare system, reforming our retirement security laws in this nation, some environmental and tax laws.

KEYES: Mfume agrees that there are differences, and that it comes down to policy.

Mr. KWEISI MFUME (Former Congressman): NAFTA, the Patriot Act, special interest corporate money, and to come extent on the war. You know, I favor a withdrawal that would be completed in six months, redeployment of our troops, and to use the money to do real homeland security to protect our ports and our borders.

KEYES: Several potential voters who attended a recent Mfume town hall meeting say they haven't made up their minds about whom to vote for. Cardin's superior fundraising and visibility have left many voters unaware of what the other candidates stand for.

Video photographer Aquil Harris(ph) says he had a hard time choosing to support Mfume over Cardin. But he wants someone in there who's ready to fight.

Mr. AQUIL HARRIS (Voter): The Republicans a long time ago have taken the gloves off. They pretty much bludgeoned the Democratic Party, in my opinion, and we need more people to get in the trenches and fight back. There has to be an opposition party and the Democratic party has not been acting like one.

KEYES: Republicans in Maryland are making the case that whichever Democrat wins on Tuesday, they have a shot in the fall with their likely nominee, Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, who is black.

The reasoning goes like this. If Mfume wins, white Democrats will vote to Steele, and likewise if Cardin wins, disaffected African Americans will vote for Steele.

Not so fast, says Arthur Murphy. Murphy, a Democratic consultant who chaired Mfume's first run for Congress 20 years ago, doesn't see Steele winning, no matter which Democrat comes out on top in Tuesday's primary.

Mr. ARTHUR MURPHY (Democratic Consultant): He's going to do better than most Republicans have done, but he's not going to do well enough to overcome the issue deficit that he has.

The issues about choice, affirmative action, are more important than skin color.

KEYES: The verdict on the street outside the Lexington Market is even more harsh. Voter Brevard McCullough says there's no way African American voters will go Republican in November.

Mr. MCCULLOUGH: If you're with the people that don't care, the people that's killing our kids and hurting our people - here you've got a brother up here endorsing this, and we're like, you know, where his head at, what he thinking?

KEYES: McCullough says it's not about race, it's about making sure Democrats win - Mfume or Cardin.

Mr. MCCULLOUGH: No, we're past race. Yeah. People need help.

KEYES: Allison Keyes, NPR News. Washington.

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