Maryland chose a white anti-war Democrat over a black Republican for the state's open U.S. Senate seat Tuesday, a blow to GOP efforts to recruit black winners in the midterm elections.

Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin, who made his opposition to the war in Iraq and voter dissatisfaction with President Bush the central themes of his campaign, defeated Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, the first black candidate elected statewide in Maryland.

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With 48 percent of the state's precincts reporting, Cardin had 48 percent of the vote, or 331,924 votes. Steele had 50 percent, or 348,232 votes.

Cardin declared victory at his party in Baltimore moments after Steele said he wasn't conceding.

"How sweet is it is!" Cardin told supporters. Later, he told a reporter that "I am very confident that I have won."

Steele told supporters at a Bowie hotel that he wasn't ready to give up on victory. "I'm asking you to hang in there with me tonight," he said. "I don't know about you, but I have a whole lot of fight left in me."

The GOP had considered Steele its best shot in the nation at having a black Republican elected statewide. Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell lost Tuesday, as did Pennsylvania's GOP pick for governor, Lynn Swann.

Racial overtones dominated the Maryland race. Steele and Cardin battled for support in Prince George's County, a predominantly black county in the Washington suburbs. Cardin emphasized his opposition to Bush and the Republican Congress, and Steele urged blacks to send him to the Senate to make history as the state's first black U.S. senator.

Exit polls suggested Steele made some inroads with black voters, but not enough to beat Cardin in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 by party registration. The state is about a third black, which had given the GOP hope that Steele could break Democrats' longtime lock on Maryland senators.

"Race was important," said Bernard Miller, 53, a black Mitchellville resident and a registered Democrat who chose Steele on Tuesday. He said he was angry the Democrats didn't nominate a black candidate for the seat and he wanted the party to "start taking us seriously again."

A Cardin supporter, Tony Miles, who is black, said Steele made a strong appeal for blacks to cross parties.

"I think he played the race card pretty well, unfortunately," said Miles, an attorney who was at Cardin's Baltimore election-night party. But Miles said that Cardin's strong anti-war stance led him support the white Democrat over Steele, who stopped short of saying the Iraq war was a mistake.

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