As primary nears, a look at Cardin's campaign

Maryland Votes 2006


WASHINGTON -- A few years ago, eager to fight a waistline expansion that seems inevitable among denizens of Capitol Hill, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin sought out a nutritionist for help. Among her suggestions was this mandate: Always eat breakfast at home, no matter what's on the day's schedule.

Cardin has dutifully followed that advice ever since. But the 10-term congressman from Baltimore County finds that healthful concession - as well as most other leisure activities - increasingly difficult to squeeze in as he intensifies his 15-month-old campaign for the U.S. Senate. In juggling his day job with the incessant demands of a run for higher office, the 62-year-old has pared back his outside interests.

"I've limited myself to three priorities: carrying out my responsibilities as a congressman, running for the United States Senate, and tending to my family responsibilities," Cardin said in a recent interview.

He jokes that that means he doesn't eat or sleep very much. And, often, his combined schedule stretches from a breakfast campaign appearance to a committee meeting, through an evening spate of House votes and on into a nighttime fundraiser. Cardin says the often demanding - and always unpredictable - congressional schedule has caused some friction within his Senate campaign, forcing him to miss events he'd prefer to attend and preventing him from focusing on becoming the Democratic nominee in the race to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

But Cardin said he has to put his constituents first and relishes the platform, his for nearly 20 years, to influence policies ranging from trade pacts to Social Security.

"It's an incredible opportunity you have in Congress," he said.

Despite the rough schedule, Cardin has missed only a handful of House votes since plunging into the Senate race in April 2005. It's easier for him than many other members of Congress aiming for higher office, since rushing to the U.S. Capitol is a matter of a quick trip down the highway.

During his tenure in the House, Cardin has carved out influential niches for himself: As the top Democrat on a powerful trade subcommittee, he speaks with pride about his work crafting agreements to knock down barriers to the free flow of commerce between the U.S. and other nations.

On occasion, he has put his concerns about fair practices for workers - labor unions are some of his most ardent supporters - over his support for free trade. This month, he voted against a trade pact with Oman, the second time he has opposed such an agreement.

Cardin has also been a dogged advocate for improving the nation's health care system, most recently pressing the Bush administration to extend the deadline for seniors to sign up for the new Medicare prescription drug benefit.

That effort failed, but Cardin said health care - along with education, reducing the budget deficit and working toward energy independence - is a central part of his plans for change, should he be elected to the Senate.

Cardin, whose first run for office in 1966 resulted in his election to the Maryland House of Delegates while he was still a law student, is well-known in state and national political circles as the ultimate under-the-radar man.

In Washington, where partisan polarization has become an almost religious fervor, Republicans and Democrats alike praise him for his willingness to reach across the aisle and salvage compromise from all but the most extreme situations.

Cardin is an unabashed liberal, but he's also a dealmaker. In 2001 he successfully pushed to add a provision increasing tax savings for pension benefits to tax-cut legislation promoted by President Bush - but then stuck with his party and voted against the package.

In late 2002, Cardin voted against authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq, a vote that, he says now, was unpopular in his home district.

"I was pretty confident it was the right vote when I made it," he said, and going into this fall's elections, it also means Cardin finds himself in line with an increasing number of voters, especially in Maryland.

"He's a partisan, like I am, but he is very inclined to sit down with people and try to see if they can reach a mutual meeting of the minds," said Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House and a close friend who has endorsed Cardin.

However, the qualities that have become Cardin's signature - the type of consensus-building skills that made him one of the youngest state House speakers in Maryland history - don't always translate into notoriety.

Cardin is professorial, with a decidedly wonkish air. Volume is his most frequent rhetorical tool - rather - he raises his voice in speeches when he wants to drive home a point; most of the time, he is a quiet, calm speaker, methodically outlining his ideas about a particular subject.

Hoyer, who has been plotting political strategy with Cardin for decades, said he has frequently prodded his friend to ratchet up the passion.

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