With just two days left before Tuesday's historic primary election to succeed Kweisi Mfume in Maryland's 7th Congressional District, the record-breaking field of 27 Democrats seeking the party's nomination remains extremely fluid.
Del. Elijah E. Cummings, the Maryland House speaker pro tem, is the perceived front-runner, having captured some key endorsements, including that of the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper Friday, and having raised more than $220,000, nearly twice that of the next nearest candidate.
Mr. Cummings has used that money to buy the additional name recognition that this three-month, wintertime primary requires, dumping the money into a television ad blitz and a flood of direct-mail pieces, the scale of which no one else has touched.
But the four-term West Baltimore legislator continues to look over his shoulder -- at a handful of candidates who have the potential to overtake whatever lead he may have with voters. Candidate polls consistently have shown five candidates jockeying for first place, with a huge percentage of voters in Baltimore City and Baltimore County still undecided.
The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, the powerful pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's stepbrother, continues to dog Mr. Cummings in this free-for-all, as do Baltimore County Sen. Delores G. Kelley, Baltimore lawyer A. Dwight Pettit and Baltimore Register of Wills Mary W. Conaway (based almost her citywide name recognition).
There are other strong contenders, each with his and her dedicated constituencies, including three other members of the Maryland House of Delegates, three other ministers and a few impressive new voices that have emerged since Mr. Mfume declared Dec. 9 that he was leaving Congress to head the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The variables still in play at this late date make the race nearly impossible to predict, even for the most skilled handicapper, given the size of the field, the expected voter turnout of less than 25 percent (about 50,000 voters) and the possibility of rain Tuesday (which could further diminish the vote).
Those factors keep the field volatile, allowing for the chance of a win by hopefuls who are reportedly not high in the polls at this point -- candidates such as Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a third-term legislator from Northeast Baltimore with a loyal following; or even newcomer Traci K. Miller, a city prosecutor who has captured the attention of the political establishment and connected with voters everywhere she speaks.
"You could do it with 5,000 votes," said Del. Clarence Davis, a four-term East Baltimore legislator who also is running.
It remains anyone's race, a numbers game dependent largely on the winning campaign's ability to ensure that voters make it to the polls -- and vote the right way.
"Like they say, it's not over till the polls close," said Julius Henson, Mr. Cummings' campaign manager.
The contest has been extraordinary from the start, beginning with Mr. Mfume's stunning news that he was stepping down, midway through his fifth term.
Even on a legal, technical level, Mr. Mfume's sudden exit was groundbreaking.
It required emergency legislation to be passed by the General Assembly in January to combine a special primary election to fill his seat with the state's previously scheduled March 5 presidential primary. Without the change in law, two separate primaries would have been required.
Winners from the field of 27 Democrats and five Republicans in Tuesday's election will compete April 16 in a special general election -- likely to be a mere formality for the Democratic nominee -- to determine which of them will fill the last nine months of Mr. Mfume's term. Those winners also would face each other -- unless they declined the nomination, considered highly unlikely -- in the Nov. 5 general election for the two-year congressional term that begins in January.
In the three-month sprint from Mr. Mfume's announcement to the March 5 primary, the race has pitted legislator against legislator, clergyman against clergyman, Eastside against Westside, and city against county.
"The political landscape of Maryland will never be the same after this," predicted Del. Salima S. Marriott, another West Baltimore legislator in the race.
One of the more curious turns has been among the city ministers, whose endorsements and political activism were critical to the win of Mr. Mfume in 1986 and that of his predecessor, Parren J. Mitchell, who became Maryland's first black congressman in 1970 when he defeated the
machine-backed nine-term incumbent.
This year, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, traditionally the most politically influential of the city's groups of clergy, and the bulk of other minister groups threw its support behind the Rev. Arnold W. Howard, a West Baltimore pastor.