In search of a winning story in the Senate race

July 16, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

An early supporter of U.S. Senate candidate Benjamin L. Cardin heard the speech and found himself fighting back tears.

They were tears of sympathy - and sharp internal conflict.

The speaker was not Congressman Cardin. It was Kweisi Mfume, a powerful public speaker with an inspirational up-from-the-streets story.

And thereby hung the tale in this year's race to replace Maryland's Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

Mr. Cardin has the superior organization, the big money and the political support. Mr. Mfume has the story - and a well-honed talent for telling it.

By any reasonable measure, Ben Cardin has an unparalleled record and the interpersonal political skills to become, almost instantly, an influential member of the Senate. He is, like Mr. Sarbanes, a scholar of public policy, a man of great integrity and an expert on issues voters care about: pensions and Social Security, for example.

But there are those who say Mr. Mfume is what the political moment demands: someone to carry the anti-war banner, the anti-Republican banner, the banner of all-but-forgotten poor and minority groups.

And he, too, comes with a glittering rM-isumM-i: former 7th District congressman, former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, former Baltimore City councilman and former media personality.

He also comes with "baggage": five children out of wedlock and charges of inappropriate behavior as head of the NAACP. His difficulties at raising money for this campaign have been attributed, by some, to this history. Others say his underdog campaign mirrors his life.

The Maryland Republican Party and its all-but-chosen candidate, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, might rather face him than Mr. Cardin. He has vulnerabilities the GOP could attack without encountering charges of racial bias because Mr. Steele, too, is black.

With the primary election less than two months away, the campaign also has a cast of unknowns - a few of whom individually and all of whom taken together could affect the outcome.

One of them, Joshua Rales of Montgomery County, says he will pour millions of his personal fortune into the race.

Former state senator and Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen may kindle enough support among blue-collar Reagan Democrats to be a factor.

Allan J. Lichtman, a history professor at American University, could be a draw in Montgomery County.

A. Robert Kaufman, the perennial leftist challenger, will try to keep the others focused on the kind of revolutionary change he insists is the only way to reform the American political system.

Third-party candidate Kevin Zeese, a knowledgeable anti-war candidate, is also running.

Some virtually cataclysmic event would be necessary to make any of the "other" contenders likely winners. And it's not about media inattention or media focus on the horse race; it's about lifetimes of public service that have earned the front-runners their status. There's time for lightning to strike, of course, and the relatively unknown candidates will continue to press their cases, hoping for something to alter the dynamic.

Mr. Mfume's approach might be a model for those who complain that the fix is in against them. The speech that brought a Cardin supporter to the brink of tears has been his answer. It could make him a winner if enough people could hear or see it. If he had Mr. Rales' money - or even Mr. Cardin's - the race might not be close.

Mr. Cardin knows, by the way, that he's not Mr. Charisma. He's simply an engaging human being who impresses people with the depth of his knowledge when he's working with them "on both sides of the aisle," as they say on Capital Hill.

What he knows more fundamentally, though, is that he can win by doing what he does best: out-organizing the opposition. Until recently, there's been very little evidence of a comprehensive campaign by Mr. Mfume. He's been doing well with his voice and his story - arguing at the same time that, even now, he runs as the underdog, the unanointed. The party bigwigs, he says, have chosen Ben Cardin and tried to clear the field. It's part of his story.

But Mr. Cardin's campaign, too, evolves from a personal story of commitment and steady support of those who back him - even while they marvel at Mr. Mfume's handsome oratory.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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