Rocky Start on Both Sides after Senate Primaries in Maryland

A week after the primary election, the two major-party U.S. Senate nominees are trying to refocus from a rough start to the general election season.

Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is still trying to explain why he congratulated Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin on his win, but then skipped a nationally televised debate opportunity because Cardin's victory was not yet official. And the Cardin campaign is facing allegations of racism from the Steele campaign, after it fired a staff member who kept a Web log, or blog, containing bigoted comments.

The incidents may not push voters away, buy they are an alert for both candidates to avoid future mistakes in a campaign that may be anything but peaceful, analysts say.

"It has been a rough start, but it's going to get rougher," said Ron Walters, professor of political science at University of Maryland, College Park.

The incidents, he said, are unlikely to have much impact in votes, unless something more serious comes out.

"It also depends on who is better at pointing out the flaws, the problems, the troubles in the other person's campaign," Walters said. "If it keeps happening, it will become a problem."

Cardin is a longtime campaigner, so Walters said he expects problems with that campaign will be kept to a minimum. But Steele may make more mistakes since it is his first "real campaign," he said. He ran on the same ticket as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich four years ago, his first race for public office.

"But this is his campaign and he's got to prove that he's up to it," Walters said. "So he is apt to make more mistakes."

One of those mistakes, Walters said, was to concede Cardin's victory the day after the primary and invite him to debate, and then refuse to debate him.

Cardin appeared alone on a cable news show Thursday, saying he did not know why Steele was not recognizing him as the legitimate nominee, after congratulating him.

That controversy was still under discussion when Cardin's problems hit. One of his campaign staffers was keeping a Web log, or blog, of her campaign experience — calling herself Persuasionatrix. She wrote about a black staffer who "plays the racism card, the magic passport to a different chain of command" every time he was going to be disciplined. She also wrote about her discomfort in being a "sex object" for Cardin's Jewish friends. The staffer was fired Friday, when Cardin's team learned about the blog, Oren Shur told The Washington Post Sunday.

But Steele's campaign manager Michael Leavitt did not let it pass, releasing a statement on the "racially insulting blog," and addressing several questions to Cardin on the issues on the blog.

Steele, Maryland's first black lieutenant governor, was particularly concerned with the racial comments.

"What we are seeing is really a tempest in a teapot," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a Bethesda public opinion research firm, especially if it is compared with "the all-out war that is going to be undertaken" in Maryland in the next weeks.

"Both camps are marshalling their armaments for the big battle of the next several weeks," he said.

"Inside baseball — the machinations of one campaign to another really doesn't impact voter attitudes," Haller said. "It's the rough and tumble of these national campaigns where other people are making decisions," he added, and the political process gets "muddy."

Haller said Cardin "very aggressively wants to nationalize the campaign. He wants to look at the U.S. Senate position as the place where major decisions are going to be made" about the Iraq war, the budget or the Bush administration's performance. Steele is "more focused on leadership, and personality and style, less on substance," while trying to show himself as moderate to entice Maryland's mainstream voters.

The week's incidents are mere jockeying for position, Haller said, and the real race will be in the stretch three weeks before the Nov. 7 general election.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.