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Steele Trap for Md. Democrats?

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, one of Senate Republicans’ most-wanted recruits of the cycle, announced Wednesday that he is forming an exploratory committee and will begin raising money for what looks increasingly like a 2006 Senate bid.

But Steele stopped short of declaring himself a candidate, saying he wanted to spend the next few months traveling the state weighing voters’ concerns — and gauging his political prospects.

“My mama taught me a long time ago that if you want to get things done, you ought to shut up and listen first,” he said during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.

Still, Republicans could not disguise their glee, and while Democrats took their requisite whacks at Steele, some privately conceded that having Steele as the Republican nominee could threaten their ability to hold the seat occupied by retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) since 1976.

As one of the few black Republican stars on the national scene, Steele has the unique potential to scramble Maryland’s traditional political math, which favors Democrats in part because of the overwhelming support they enjoy from the state’s substantial black electorate.

But with many black Marylanders still bitter over the 2002 election, when the entire Democratic statewide ticket was white, Republicans believe that Steele represents a prime opportunity for the GOP to pick off black voters, especially if the Democratic Senate nominee is white.

Brian Nick, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Steele is the rare Republican who can win statewide in Maryland.

“You’ve got to run someone with the right demographics,” he said.

So far, Rep. Benjamin Cardin, who is white, and former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who is black, have formally entered the Democratic Senate contest.

But several other Democrats continue to eye the race — and Roll Call has learned that one of them is Lise Van Susteren, a prominent Washington, D.C., forensic psychiatrist who is the older sister of Fox News personality Greta Van Susteren.

By coincidence, Steele’s announcement came on the same morning that the Senate’s lone black Member, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), appeared in Maryland to headline a fundraiser for Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.).

Before a racially mixed crowd of 1,000 in a ballroom in Greenbelt, Obama expressed confidence “that the great state of Maryland is going to send another strong Democrat to the United States Senate next year.”

Mfume — who some national black Democratic leaders have suggested shares Obama’s star power — was the only active or potential Senate candidate that Obama mentioned by name from the podium. At one point, he referred to him as “Brother Mfume.”

But in a brief interview, Obama stopped short of endorsing the former NAACP president in the Democratic primary.

“We haven’t had a formal sit-down yet,” Obama said. “Things are shaking out. There are a number of strong candidates and I’m trying to figure out who the strongest candidate is going to be to keep the seat for the Democrats.”

With Obama appearing to promote Mfume, the buzz in the room was palpable. And with so many enthusiastic black Democratic officeholders and activists on hand, the potential for the party if Mfume is the Senate nominee — and the potential pitfalls if he is not — was on vivid display.

In an interview, Mfume cautioned that Maryland Democrats could suffer up and down the ticket if party leaders are seen as not doing enough to promote black candidates.

“It’s a huge hangover from ’02,” he said. “And people want to repair a sense that you’re signaling them that you hear them loud and clear.”

At the same time, some Democrats, white and black, fret that Mfume is too liberal and that he has been damaged by allegations that he showed favoritism to certain employees during his nine-year tenure at the NAACP. They privately argue that in a general election between Mfume and Steele, the Republican could be an attractive enough alternative to draw white Democratic voters who are wary of Mfume.

Mfume has yet to be endorsed by a single elected official, black or white. He professed to be unconcerned, saying he has spent the first three months of the race building a campaign infrastructure and reaching out to grassroots voters, and will spend the next three months focusing on fundraising.

“I don’t play the endorsement game,” he said.

Several black Maryland Democrats said it is too early in the election cycle to read any significance into Mfume’s inability to rack up endorsements from black elected officials.

“I think most African-Americans are probably keeping their powder dry to see what the different candidates have to offer,” said Wayne Clarke, a Democratic consultant and lobbyist in Prince George’s County, the majority-black Democratic stronghold that borders the District of Columbia. “We’ve learned in the past with both parties not to put ourselves in a position to be duped.”

Mfume’s fortunes in the primary could be determined by the number of candidates who actually get in.

Cardin remains the early frontrunner, and he is steadily amassing institutional support around the state. But Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) continues to weigh a bid, and with his fundraising prowess and his base in voter-rich Montgomery County, he could be a major factor. Van Hollen said Wednesday his “goal” is to reach a decision on the Senate race by July.

“I don’t want to be rushed into a bad decision,” he said.

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens (D) may announce by next week whether she’ll run for the Senate seat or the 3rd district House seat that Cardin is vacating. And Montgomery County developer Joshua Rales, who was urged to run for Senate in 2004 by state GOP leaders, is seriously exploring the race as a Democrat this time and would largely self-fund a campaign.

Van Susteren, who lives in Montgomery County, has also begun to reach out to Democratic leaders, strategists and interest groups to discuss the race.

A political neophyte, she too is seen as a likely self-funder, whose noteworthy connections extend beyond her TV star sister. Van Susteren’s husband, Jonathan Kempner, is the president of the Mortgage Bankers Association in Washington, D.C., and her sister-in-law is Aviva Kempner, a filmmaker known for her well-reviewed documentary on baseball Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Van Susteren was reluctant to discuss her plans at length.

“I want to make sure that all the elements [for a campaign] are there,” she said.

Whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee will face a unified GOP and a well-funded opponent in Steele. The 46-year-old lawyer, a former state GOP chairman who never held elective office until he was tapped to be the running mate for now-Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) in 2002, is sure to be at the very top of national Republican donor lists this cycle. He acknowledged that he may need to raise as much as $15 million or $20 million for the race.

Without touching on the potential racial implications of the Senate campaign, Steele conceded that he has his work cut out for him in a state that last elected a Republican Senator in 1980, and hadn’t elected a GOP governor for 36 years until Ehrlich’s victory.

“This is still Maryland,” he said. “This is a state where I’m going to have to prove, in some cases once again, that I’m ready to step up to a position of leadership.”

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