WASHINGTON — Though political momentum appears to be with Democrats around the country, the trend is going the other way in one solidly blue state, where a Republican candidate is gaining on the favored Democrat in a contest with an unexpected racial twist.
The state is Maryland and the candidate is Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, a black Republican running for the Senate against a white Democratic congressman, Benjamin L. Cardin.
Once trailing by more than 10 points, Steele narrowed the margin to where the race is now considered by some to be nearly a tossup. His recent gains reflect growing dissatisfaction among some blacks toward the state Democratic Party.
On Monday, a group of prominent African American Democrats from Prince George's County in the Washington suburbs crossed party lines to endorse the Republican.
"The [Democratic] Party acts as though when they want our opinion they'll give it to us," said Wayne Curry, the former county executive who led the mutiny. "It will not be like that anymore."
Curry and others complained that although nearly 30% of the state's population and 35% of Democratic voters were African American, too many of the statewide Democratic candidates in this year's election were white.
Endorsing Steele "is a way to say, 'Don't leave Prince George's out, and don't leave African Americans out,' " said county council member David Harrington at a press conference.
Racial tensions in Maryland's Democratic Party have been brewing since earlier this year, when Cardin beat back a primary challenge from former congressman and NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume by a margin of 44% to 41%.
Democratic leaders say that Cardin won because he raised more money than Mfume. But Ronald Walters, a professor at the University of Maryland who studies African American politics, said the party leadership rallied early around Cardin, which hampered Mfume's ability to raise cash.
"I was startled by the swiftness of it," Walters said. "It was as if they wanted to foreclose the possibility of anybody else jumping in."
Since winning the primary, Cardin has generally polled well above Steele, which would be expected in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1. But Cardin's lead began to slip recently, and some polls show it in the single digits.
One reason, observers say, is that Steele has run a series of clever TV ads, including one known as "the puppy ad." In an effort to inoculate himself against negative Democratic ads, Steele warns voters that they are likely to hear Democrats accuse him of terrible things like hating puppies.
"For the record," Steele says, "I love puppies."
Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, says that Steele's strong performance has been a surprise.
"Mfume didn't have all that much money, and he still got 41%. Which tells me people didn't exactly flock to Cardin," Duffy said. "Steele is a lot better than expected. It's not that Cardin is a bad candidate; he's just a little dull."
On Friday, Duffy officially moved the race -- which is for the seat of retiring Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes -- from the "leans Democratic" category to "tossup."
"At the end of the day, do I think it's really hard for Steele? Yes," Duffy said. "It's a very Democratic state and a very bad environment for Republicans. But he has made this a race."
Maryland's Democratic Party insists that Cardin is well ahead of Steele, and that even a black Republican in a state with a sizable African American community will have trouble getting elected this year.
"I think the voters understand that a vote for Michael Steele is a vote for George Bush," said state Democratic Party spokesman David Paulson. "Right now, Democrats don't like the guys who are holding George Bush's hand."
Democrats also complain that to attract Democrats and independents, Steele has been softening his positions to make himself sound more liberal. In particular, they cite what they describe as changing statements about his views on abortion and stem cell research.
"You need to round up a search party to find out where he stands on the issues," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
And they also point out that because Steele is from Prince George's County, where he got his start in politics, the support he's won there from some black Democrats may not carry over to the rest of the state.
Still, the race has been closer than expected.
Duffy said that Steele's success continued to be an aberration for black Republicans. The other two black GOP candidates who have caught national attention, gubernatorial candidates J. Kenneth Blackwell in Ohio and Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania, are not expected to win.
"Of the three of them," Duffy said, "Steele is the last man standing."