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In elections, recognition is the name of the game

September 03, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

A familiar name and face can go a long way in an election - especially when 29 candidates are cheek by jowl on the ballot.

That's the case in this year's U.S. Senate race in Maryland, with 28 of the 29 candidates competing in a pair of primaries on Sept. 12.

The Republicans have 10 people in the running, but the party, nationally, already has declared Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele its nominee.

There are 18 candidates in the Democratic primary, including current U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and former Congressman Kweisi Mfume. The Democratic National Committee is not taking sides, spokeswoman Amaya Smith said.

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The Green Party will have a candidate on the ballot in the Nov. 7 general election.

The Senate seat is open because Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes decided not to seek a sixth term.

With so many choices, what's a voter to do?

Learn as much as possible, political scientists say - but reality often falls short of that ideal.

Confronted with a wad of choices, voters first look for names they recognize, said Michael O'Loughlin, an associate professor in Salisbury (Md.) University's Department of Political Science.

"Word one in terms of a successful campaign is getting your name known to people," he said.

O'Loughlin said familiarity breeds comfort, which is enough for some voters.

Noticeable campaign signs, on their own, might win votes, said Len Latkovski, a history professor at Hood College in Frederick, Md.

Then, as their names seep into the collective awareness, candidates try to present a friendly public image, said Ronald Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland's College Park campus.

That might mean sound bytes or simple ads on television.

"Likability is a big factor for campaigning," Walters said.

A smile and handshake at the county fair also could make an impression.

"The whole idea is to get out into the public," Latkovski said.

Walters said voters rarely seek substantive information about candidates.

"I don't think most individuals will have the time and inclination to research," he said. "They'll take what's served to them."

Latkovski said he understands why national GOP leaders have declared a primary winner in Maryland: Of the field, only Steele is widely known as a political figure.

"He's already run for office. He's been elected," Latkovski said.

He said name recognition usually is carried into a race, not created - but there are exceptions, such as businessman Ned Lamont, who defeated Joseph Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.

"There has to be a vulnerable candidate or a hot issue," Latkovski said. "It is theoretically possible for an almost unknown figure, but it needs the right political circumstance or it requires money."

That's why he sees Josh Rales, who founded an investment company, as a factor in the Democratic race, although behind Cardin and Mfume.

The three educators interviewed for this story hadn't heard of any Republicans in the Maryland Senate primary other than Steele; one didn't know there was a Republican primary.

National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Dan Ronayne also didn't know anything about the nine people he accused of "just going through an exercise" by running against Steele.

The one he picked out, by nickname only, was "Wig Man" - aka Daniel Vovak, who is wearing a white, Colonial-style wig as he campaigns. His nickname is listed as part of his name on the ballot.

Ronayne gave Vovak credit for getting people to notice. But, he said, that's hardly enough to anchor a campaign.

"You kind of sacrifice your seriousness," he said.

Walters said informed voters take time to learn on their own, and don't let shallow promotion, such as signs and slogans, masquerade as education.

"People have to determine on the basis of the candidates' records, what they mean to them, and not necessarily be guided by campaign advertising, which is distorted ..." Walters said. "Read the record. Go to the Web site."

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