In crowded Senate race, craziness is in the lead

July 31, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

It's shaping up to be a close U.S. Senate race - not to replace the retiring Paul Sarbanes, but to be the candidate who ends up with the most egg on his face during the campaign.

Where to begin? With Michael "Bush Ain't Heavy, He's My Homeboy" Steele? Or maybe Josh "Democracy for Drug Addicts" Rales?

Crowding is known to spawn crazy behavior; maybe that's why the field running for Sarbanes' seat seems to have collectively tilted off center, and I don't mean politically.

There are 29 candidates - 18 Democrats (one is actually a socialist), 10 Republicans and one Green. That's a lot of candidates for what is probably a three-man race at this point, with Democrats Ben Cardin and Kweisi Mfume battling it out in the primary to face the Republican - albeit the very confused Republican - Lieutenant Governor Steele.

At least the candidates haven't resorted to the behavior of the classic scientific experiment on the effects of crowding - the one where rats crammed into a room soon began killing and cannibalizing one another. Yet. Instead, the injuries have been largely self-inflicted.

Here's a recap:

On July 18, a PR firm hired by the campaign of Rales, a Bethesda real estate investor and philanthropist, paid a Baltimore drug-rehab center to bus 20 of its patients to wave signs for him at a candidates debate in College Park, The Washington Times reported. "If I can help people who have some drug issues ... participate in the democratic process," the paper quoted the Democrat as saying, "I think that's great."

Then, on July 22, candidate David Dickerson of Sparks was arrested after his young Latvian-born wife accused him of rape and assault, which the Democrat denies. His lawyer says the woman is mentally ill, and court records show she was admitted to a psychiatric ward after the alleged incident.

Finally, there's the whiplashing behavior of Steele, who was unmasked as the anonymous GOP Senate candidate who trashed President Bush at a lunch with reporters last Monday. On Tuesday, his campaign spokesman was spinning it as "frank" talk by someone "who doesn't pull any punches." By Wednesday, though, Steele was calling Bush his "homeboy" and blaming The Washington Post for printing his "off the record" comments.

Credit candidate Dennis Rasmussen, a Democrat, with being prescient. The former Baltimore County executive seemed like the wacky one when earlier this year he released "Razzmania," an animated musical cartoon that has gotten more than 13,000 hits on YouTube. "There's Cardin on the left beating the same old drum," goes one rapped-sung lyric. "And Steele on the bass - we don't know where he's coming from."

It says something about this bunch that Baltimore gadfly Robert Kaufman, the socialist in the race, no longer seems so far out there. He sounds like he's enjoying the spectacle as he travels the candidate forum circuit with the regulars: "Kweisi; Allan Lichtman; the millionaire, a very nice fellow - I'm terrible with names; the former scientist with the space service; and the guy who wears the wig." (The last three are Rales, Democrat Thomas McCaskill, a retired research physicist, and Republican Daniel Vovak, who wears a white wig as a reference to his party's "Whig" roots.)

Kaufman doesn't seem ready to concede the most-outrageous contest. He ends the interview by making three points: One, the U.S. is "addicted" to war; two, he's not just asking for your vote but your kidney (he needs a transplant, his having failed as a result of a knife attack a year ago); and three, if you can't give him a kidney, as a "booby prize" he'll take a cash donation to his campaign.

After five terms of the quietly businesslike Sarbanes, perhaps any field of candidates that emerged to replace him would seem flamboyant by contrast. Pundit Larry J. Sabato thinks the senator's long tenure may even have helped set the stage for a decidedly more colorful group to run to succeed him.

"When you finally get an opening, you have this pent-up demand," Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia, says. "You have people who have waited generations to run."

So you'd think they'd be ready - but no. "The spotlight is always hotter than they expect," he says.

Still, Sabato doesn't expect any of the campaign foibles and missteps to have much effect on voters. Even Steele, he says, can probably recover from his current travails.

"The public has the memory of a tsetse fly," Sabato says. "No one will remember this by Labor Day."

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