Endorsers wary about Senate race

Legislators slow to decide among Democratic choices


In a campaign in which race has been a not-so-subtle undercurrent, some of the most potentially influential voices in the Maryland congressional delegation are taking a cautious approach toward embracing a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the state's open U.S. Senate seat.

Reps. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County, two of the most prominent black elected Democrats in the state, have said they want to get closer to the Sept. 12 primary before throwing their support to a candidate.

Both are delaying a difficult choice: selecting from a field that includes a current colleague, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore County, and a former member of the state delegation, Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore, a past leader of the Congressional Black Caucus and the former national head of the NAACP.

Only two of the state's six House Democrats, Reps. Steny H. Hoyer and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, have endorsed a candidate, both backing Cardin.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County said he would not make an endorsement before the primary.

The relative silence of Cummings and Wynn complicates the dynamics of the race, in which the top Republican contender, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, is the first African-American elected to statewide office in Maryland.

The state Democratic Party, in conjunction with the federal Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has conducted polling to determine Steele's strength among black Democratic voters. The survey found many are open to his message of economic empowerment.

Also remaining quiet has been the Congressional Black Caucus, which Mfume led for two years while in Congress.

Blacks make up about 30 percent of Maryland's population, the highest proportion of any state outside the Deep South, and are an important constituency, particularly in Democratic primaries. Many black politicians and community leaders say the African-American vote has been taken for granted by the Democratic Party in recent years, pointing to the all-white slate at the top of the state ticket four years ago.

Unsure slate

Cummings, whose district stretches from Baltimore and into Howard County, said he hasn't had much pressure, either from candidates or their supporters, to make an endorsement - in part because he has made it clear that he's months away from making a decision.

"It's too early to endorse anybody," said Cummings, who was elected to Mfume's seat after Mfume left Congress to head the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1996. "We don't know who's going to be in the race."

Cummings pointed to the recent departure of Lise Van Susteren, who said she ended her candidacy because she wouldn't be able to raise enough money to keep up with the front-runners. With the July 5 filing deadline still more than two months off, he said, it's not worth choosing a candidate until it's clear who will be in the final primary field.

Wynn agreed. He said that he probably would make an endorsement before the primary, but that "it's still very early."

"There's a lot of opportunity to evaluate the candidates, and that's what I'm trying to do," he said.

Wynn said he wants time to get a better sense of what each candidate could do for the state - and his own constituents. He said he has talked with each of the candidates about their ideas.

Cummings and Wynn said that they want to consider their decision carefully, and weigh in when voters are paying closer attention to the race.

"I don't see endorsing someone almost five months before an election as the most effective way to do it," Cummings said. "If I'm going to do an endorsement - which I do plan to - I want it to have the maximum meaning."

Wynn said that his evaluation would be based mostly on which candidate would be the best senator for Maryland, with race being a minor variable.

"It's a factor, but that's not the only issue," Wynn said.

Van Hollen said that as long as all Democrats focus on the ultimate goal of keeping the Sarbanes seat in the party's hands, it makes sense to let the candidates battle it out among themselves. That will help the eventual nominee hone his message, he said.

"I think we have a number of strong candidates," said Van Hollen, who flirted with a Senate run last year. "This is a healthy process - we should let them compete for votes, and I think a strong candidate will emerge."

Mfume's campaign could not be reached for comment.

Cardin said his focus has been less on formally courting endorsements and more on emphasizing the message that Maryland Democrats need a united front this fall to defeat Steele.

"I've reached out to people who have endorsed, people who have not endorsed, people who will not endorse," he said, adding that he has tried to send the message that his campaign "is one of inclusion."

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