Former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume has the edge against the other prominent Democrats hoping to replace U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, but Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele would run neck and neck against any of them in the 2006 election, the new Sun Poll shows.
Mfume - a former congressman - would have a narrow lead over Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and a large edge over Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County if the primary were held now.
But in a matchup against the Republican lieutenant governor, Cardin, who is popular among the suburban Baltimore voters crucial to statewide Republican candidates, would fare best, edging Steele by 4 points. Against the other two Democrats, Steele was in a statistical tie in the telephone poll conducted April 11-13.
"He's a political force to be reckoned with," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, which conducted the poll. "You're looking at him against the most-known Democratic leaders, and he's still going toe-to-toe against them at this point."
Mfume is the only major candidate who has formally declared for the state's first open U.S. Senate seat in two decades. Both Cardin and Van Hollen have made clear their serious interest in the seat, while fellow Democratic Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger announced last week that he will not run.
But the strong support for Steele illustrates the difficult decision he and the Maryland Republican Party face. Should Steele stick with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to provide the strongest possible ticket for re-election, or should he take a risk that could either land Republicans in two of the most powerful positions in the state or leave the party with neither?
"I think this seals the deal on Steele running. He'd be crazy not to run, and the national Republicans would be crazy not to do whatever it takes to get him to run," said Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who has been active in Democratic causes.
"I'd be very wary," said Richard Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University who admires Ehrlich and Steele. "I think there's a real chemistry to this team."
The poll sampled 1,000 likely voters and has a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points. Questions about the Democratic primary for Senate are based on a smaller sample and have a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
Steele spokeswoman Reagan Hopper said the lieutenant governor is considering the race very seriously but hasn't made a decision yet.
"He wants to make sure it's right for his family, right for the governor and right for the state of Maryland," she said.
The lieutenant governor, a 46-year-old attorney and former state party chairman, is coming off a year during which his profile has increased significantly inside and outside the state.
He had a prime-time speaking slot at the Republican National Convention and has stepped up his speaking engagements for the GOP around the nation. At the same time, he has toured the state on a mission from the governor to study Maryland's educational system as a precursor to reform efforts.
The poll found that 48 percent of likely voters view Steele favorably and just 16 percent negatively. That 32-point spread is larger than that for any other politician in the poll, including Ehrlich.
"I think that Steele needs to seize the opportunity. This is a golden opportunity for him, and he cannot let this go by," said GOP consultant Carol L. Hirschburg.
Although Steele is the first African-American to hold statewide elected office in Maryland and by far the most prominent black Republican in the state, his base of support is the same as that of Ehrlich and other members of his party who have run statewide.
Steele does well in Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties and in rural parts of the state, while faring more poorly in Baltimore City and the populous Washington suburbs, including his native Prince George's County.
He generally fares no better with African-Americans than does Ehrlich.
In a race against Mfume, the former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People would beat Steele among black voters by 66 points, the poll shows. Cardin, who is white, would beat Steele among blacks by 41 points.
But unlike Mfume, Steele, a political conservative, does well in the poll among whites and men, groups that typically trend more Republican.
"He is for a strong economy, and he is for managed growth," said Bill Stearn, 50, a Republican who lives in New Market in Frederick County.
"Having another black representative in the Senate would be a good thing," Stearn added.
Mfume, who polled at 32 percent in the primary matchup compared to 26 percent for Cardin and 16 percent for Van Hollen, has a strong base in the state's two majority African-American jurisdictions, Prince George's County and Baltimore.
Although he has been out of public office for nearly a decade, Mfume's years in Congress, time as head of the nation's most prominent civil rights organization and former career as a television host make his name just as well recognized statewide as Steele's.
"He has dealt with all sorts of things as head of the NAACP and with his television show, so I think he would be a real positive force in the Senate," said Mary Smith, 59, a Republican poll respondent from Ellicott City. "He has lived the life, so I think he is more in touch with the needs that some people might have."
Unlike Mfume and Van Hollen, Cardin has a strong base of support in the suburban Baltimore communities that were key to Ehrlich's victory and now make up the heart of Steele's base, the poll shows.
Cardin, who for years has represented a district that straddles the Baltimore City-Baltimore County line, has a 15-point lead in the poll against Steele in Baltimore County, a voter-rich jurisdiction where the lieutenant governor trounces the other Democratic candidates. Cardin also is competitive in the Steele-friendly jurisdictions of Anne Arundel and Howard counties, parts of which he also represents in Congress.
Julia Locke, 57, a custodian with the Howard County school system, said her community, Elkridge, has been well served by the congressman. "He has always paid attention to what people have to say," said Locke, a Democrat.
Of the three Democrats who have expressed the strongest interest in the race, the poll shows Van Hollen with the most difficult path to a seat in the U.S. Senate. He is the least-known of the three, and the poll shows he has little support outside the Washington suburbs.
In a matchup with Steele, he does much worse than the other Democrats among African-Americans and in Baltimore City, factors that would make it hard for him to win statewide.
But no matter how well Steele matches up in early polling against the Democrats, the lieutenant governor and the Republican Party would be taking a large risk if he got in the race, said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor.
Steele is more conservative than Ehrlich on social issues, and that could pose a problem for him with Maryland voters, Crenson said.
"He's a likable figure, and he's been generally low-profile during this administration. He hasn't been called upon to be the bad guy," Crenson said. "But any Democrat who runs against him is going to try to smoke him out on abortion, stem cell research and gay rights, and he's going to be placed in a very awkward position."
Sun staff writers Lynn Anderson, Rona Kobell and David Nitkin contributed to this article.