BETHESDA, Md. – The Iraq war, the future of Social Security and the candidates' personal styles have all been major points of contention in the Senate race between Democratic Rep. Benjamin Cardin and Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele.
Rarely have the candidates mentioned abortion — but outside groups are doing it for them.
Religious leaders and abortion opponents plan to spend more than $140,000 in the final two weeks of the race to persuade "values voters" to go to the polls for Steele, The Washington Post reported in Sunday's editions.
The candidates' differences on the issue are stark. Steele, a former Catholic seminarian, opposes abortion. Cardin delivered the keynote address Saturday night at NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland's annual gala in Rockville, where he challenged Steele to elaborate on his anti-abortion views.
Independent groups plan to remind Maryland voters of those views in radio and television ads, direct mail and fundraising appeals leading up to the Nov. 7 election.
National Right to Life's political action committee plans to air radio commercials on Steele's behalf in western Maryland and the Eastern Shore in the week before the election. The group has spent more than $72,000 supporting the lieutenant governor's candidacy, according to the Federal Election Commission.
A group of religious leaders known as the Maryland Values Coalition has spent $70,000 on a series of ads aimed at encouraging churchgoing black voters in Prince George's County and Baltimore to "vote for candidates who defend life."
The spots don't mention Steele by name, but organizer Bishop Harry Jackson said voters will connect the dots when they review the candidates' records in guides handed out in 150 churches.
"We're promoting values voting, and in this case it means Steele is our big choice," said Jackson, the senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Lanham.
Meanwhile, NARAL's national affiliate has sent e-mails to abortion rights supporters throughout Maryland, asking them to contribute to Cardin's campaign. The subject of the e-mail, delivered last week, was "Don't let Bush 'Steele' Your Choice in Maryland."
Women's rights leaders, including National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy, gathered Saturday in Bethesda to call attention to Steele's recent assertion that his opinion on the 1973 Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion is "moot."
"Maybe he slept through ninth-grade civics class," Gandy said. "The last time I looked at the Constitution, the Senate has to consent to every federal court nominee."
Independent candidate Kevin Zeese said he supports abortion rights but called the issue a "diversion from the major issues of our militaristic foreign policy and an economy that favors the wealthiest while the middle class struggles."
Political observers said Steele is smart to court so-called values voters, but not at the expense of the moderates he needs to win in Maryland, where a majority of voters consistently tell pollsters they believe abortion should remain legal.
"If you're Michael Steele, the last thing you want is the campaign to be determined based on a set of social issues," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., an independent polling firm.
Political science professor Herb Smith of McDaniel College in Westminster said the effort to sway conservative Democrats could be successful if the communications are limited to church congregation members. But if the message is disseminated through the mass media, it could backfire, he said.
Abortion rights supporters were angered last week when a cable news channel reported Steele's comments on the Roe v. Wade decision: "It's in the Supreme Court. What piece of legislation in the Senate is dealing with abortion?"
Steele later said that when it comes to social issues like abortion, "I'm not saying that they're not relevant. I just don't want them to be the center and the primary focus when we have people starving in our neighborhoods, when we have kids who are not being educated in our classrooms."