updated 9/13/2006 6:49:49 PM ET 2006-09-13T22:49:49

Maryland voters picked a white Democrat to go up against a black Republican for an open Senate seat in a contest that could upset the usual political and racial alliances.

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Rep. Ben Cardin edged out former NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume on Tuesday for the Democratic nomination for Senate. He will face Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele in the November election to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes.

Steele would become just the sixth black senator in U.S. history.

Democratic unity
Mfume, himself a former congressman, urged supporters to back Cardin, predicting Cardin would be a "good senator representing the state of Maryland, absolutely."

Cardin said Wednesday that he was grateful for Mfume's support and that he doubted black Democrats would defect to the GOP this fall.

"I know that we are united," he said.

Voters and race
Zach Messitte, a political scientist at St. Mary's College, said black Democrats would not necessarily back the black Republican. But he said black voters would give consideration to Steele because of his race that white Republicans would not give Cardin.

While campaigning Wednesday in Parkville, a middle-class suburb of Baltimore, Steele said he would focus on courting the swing votes he needs to win.

"Even if every Republican in Maryland voted for me, I'd still lose if I didn't build the appropriate bridges to independent voters and Democrat voters and really try to make some good things happen," Steele said.

Messitte said that Mfume's support is the key to victory for Cardin. The two ran a genial campaign and declared before the primary that each would support the winner.

"My guess is that Mfume will be very helpful to Cardin in the next seven weeks, that he will not sit on the sidelines," Messitte said.

Cardin raised about five times more money than Mfume, hauling in more than $5 million by midsummer. And he won most areas of Maryland, except heavily black Prince George's County and Baltimore.

'Lesser of two evils'
.J. Mackell, a 19-year-old black Democrat from the Baltimore suburb of Glen Burnie, voted Tuesday for Mfume but said he would probably support Steele and the GOP in November. "He's a nice guy. He's slick," Mackell said.

Another black Democrat, Eric Jackson, also of Glen Burnie, called Steele "the lesser of two evils" because he is black. "I guess if that's the option for more black representation, I'll vote for him," said Jackson, 37.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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