WASHINGTON – While much of the debate between Democrats and Republicans centers on the war in Iraq, in Maryland, a large element of the contest to fill the Senate seat about to be vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes appears to be turning on the politics of race.
Maryland Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is running for that U.S. Senate seat. He has even won early endorsement from President Bush, who attended a Steele fundraiser on Wednesday.
"Michael Steele is the right man for the United States Senate," Bush said.
But Steele, one of the Republican Party's most successful black politicians, is under attack. He has been depicted in black face and labeled a "simple Sambo" on a liberal Web site. He has been called an "Uncle Tom" by the Democratic leader in the state Senate.
Steele says he's not totally surprised.
"When there's fear and anxiety about change and a new voice, that's the response — to try and lash out and undermine and undercut it," Steele told FOX News.
Some experts suggest the racial attacks against Steele may work in his favor in a state with a high percentage of African-American voters and where Democrats outnumber Republicans two-to-one.
"I would say to Michael Steele that he should continue to use the race issue to his advantage but not to simply use it the way it has been rolled out there, but to use it in creative ways that might help him to pick up that small group of African-Americans in the state that he's going to need to win," said Ronald Walters, a professor of at the University of Maryland and director of the African-American Leadership Institute.
Already, the people Steele needs to win over are witnessing what had become a nasty campaign more than a year before the Nov. 7, 2006, election. In an apparent effort to smear his name, two employees of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee dug up Steele's credit report.
The staffers have since resigned.
"I think it was a stupid mistake and it was handled swiftly and appropriately by the individuals involved and by the Democratic Senate Committee, and it was a completely isolated incident and those kinds of incidents are never excusable," said Derek Walker at the Maryland Democratic Party.
A DSCC spokesman told FOX News "while the DSCC is not a target of the inquiry and did not authorize the employees to access Mr. Steele's credit report, we regret that this incident occurred and apologize to Mr. Steele."
But Steele says apologizing to the media isn't enough.
"I'm still waiting for an apology, I've not received a letter or a phone call or any contact from the Chairman, Chuck Schumer, or any member of the DSCC. They've told you that they've apologized but they've not apologized to me and since they didn't offend you, they didn't steal your credit report, they didn't steal your Social Security number," the apology is misdirected, he said.
At least five white candidates including Maryland Rep. Ben Cardin are running for the Democratic nomination. Also running is former congressman and former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, who is considered a frontrunner with Cardin.
Those familiar with Maryland politics say they expect the racial attacks in this campaign to continue, though Mfume's ascendance could blunt the issue.
If Kweisi Mfume winds up being the Democratic nominee, then the race issue will largely be neutralized because then you'll have a historic occasion of two very credible qualified African-American candidates facing each other in the general election for U.S. Senate," said David Nitkin, the State House bureau chief for The Baltimore Sun.
"You would not be see these kinds of charges and counter-charges flying if we had mainly white candidates running. I think you'd see much more a discussion centered around President Bush, Iraq policy, Social Security, health care, growing the economy. Instead we're debating a lot about race," he said.
In most cases, the nastiest days of a campaign are right before election day, but this Senate race has a long way to go before it gets to Republican versus Democrat. Primary day in Maryland is not until next September.