SUITLAND, Md. – Maryland leans Democratic most years, but in an open contest for Senate between a white Democrat and a black Republican Tuesday, both sides said the outcome could depend on who does better with black voters.
Supporters of the Republican, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, stood outside a train station in a predominantly black suburb of Washington hours before polls opened and urged commuters to make history by making Steele, the first African-American elected statewide, also the state's first black senator.
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Steele himself showed up, wearing jeans and looking relaxed despite a grueling campaign schedule that left him with 45 minutes of sleep the night before. He was up campaigning at coffee shops, all-night diners and a bowling alley in an 11th-hour sprint for votes.
Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 by party registration, and the state is almost a third black, typically Democratic Party supporters. But polls showed Steele within striking distance of the seat, which Democrats consider a must-win if they are to take control of the Senate.
"We're rockin' and rollin,"' Steele told supporters who were handing out his flyers. "Are we ready to win this thing?"
Steele and his Democratic rival, Rep. Ben Cardin, have been dueling over black voters for months. Both spent the final days of the campaign concentrating on heavily black neighborhoods in the Baltimore and Washington areas.
At a church rally Sunday night, a rally that featured former President Bill Clinton and drew about 1,000 people, most of them black, Cardin said turnout in that community would decide the race.
"We need to get the vote out. That's our imperative," Cardin said.
Clinton made a similar plea. Victory, he said, is up to turnout. "It's really going to come down to whether you want it enough," Clinton said.
Steele and Cardin, along with independent long-shot Kevin Zeese, are seeking the seat of retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes. Maryland hasn't sent a Republican to the Senate in more than two decades, but Steele had no trouble raising money and sought to make his lack of experience an asset. Steele was a GOP party official until becoming lieutenant governor in 2003; Cardin spent 20 years in the House and before that was speaker of the state House of Delegates.
Steele and Cardin portrayed themselves as instruments of change. Steele said he'd be an independent senator, never mentioned in ads that he is a Republican, and even put out bumper stickers that said "STEELE DEMOCRAT." Cardin's message centered largely on his vote against the war in Iraq and a promise to oppose President Bush. Both claimed to be the best choice to change the direction of Congress.
And both campaigns brought in big names to aid their cause. Steele put on fundraisers headlined by Bush and Vice President Cheney, and on the Democratic side, former President Clinton visited Maryland twice to stump for Cardin.
The race likely had national implications. Democrats, looking to overcome a six-seat deficit in the Senate, considered Maryland a must-win for that to happen. Republicans described Steele as their best chance in years to win this state, and a GOP win would make it tougher for Democrats to take control even if they defeat incumbent Republicans in other states.