A composed Cardin rides the Obama bandwagon

On The Trail

40 Day Until Nov. 7

September 28, 2006|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,sun reporter

Ben Cardin's name was everywhere in College Park yesterday - on the banner across the stage where he held a rally, on the shirts of his volunteers, on the stickers and signs they handed out to students and on the lectern where he spoke.

"Who's Ben Cardin?" one young man asked as he entered the amphitheater on the University of Maryland campus. Like most of the other 300 or so students there, he came to see Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois and the biggest Democratic rock star, post-Bill Clinton.

Obama's rally with Cardin yesterday, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's appearance with him Monday, also at the university, were partly attempts at charisma transfusion - two of the party's brightest lights trying to shift the focus to a man who seems to prefer life in the shadows.

It happens all the time in politics, and Clinton, of New York, and Obama are booked this fall firing up crowds for their less-heated colleagues. But when the rallies are over, the signs pulled from the ground and the stickers peeled from the clothing, what good does it do?

Strategists say the point is not necessarily to make voters swoon over Cardin because Obama endorses him but to stoke them for a broader cause - for the Democrats, winning back Congress. In their visits to Maryland, Obama and Clinton spent a lot more time talking about President Bush than Cardin.

Though the students were waving Cardin signs yesterday, it was clear Obama was the draw.

"When I was talking to my friends, it was never `Ben Cardin's coming,' it was `Barack Obama's coming!'" said Thea Nielsen, 20, a junior from Amherst, Mass. She wasn't too interested in hearing Cardin and was registered to vote in her hometown, anyway.

For many potential voters, Cardin's 20 years of experience in Congress don't rate as highly as a speech Obama gave in 2004 - the electrifying keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. "He's cool. He's popular," said John Fatur, 24, a junior from Carroll County. "To have him here makes it seem like this is a big deal."

But whether the excitement over Obama will send voters to the polls for Cardin is harder to say. A voter registration table outside the amphitheater did little business yesterday. And after Obama spoke, students headed for the exits even as retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes implored them to support Cardin.

Cardin's speech was a harsh condemnation of Bush's policies on Iraq, education, health care and the economy. But his discourse on the subjects of Medicare, Social Security and prescription drugs seemed misplaced for a student audience, which responded with only tepid applause.

By contrast, Obama demonstrated an instinctive sense for this crowd. He acknowledged how young people can feel alienated from government and the political process. But he reminded them that politics also brought about women's rights and civil rights. Blending humor, populism and outrage at the Bush administration, he provoked loud and prolonged cheers. "I don't know about you, but I've had enough," he said, reciting a litany of grievances.

"We love you!" someone shouted, and Obama flashed a sly grin as the applause grew louder. He'll need that love if he decides to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. In that way, his appearance may not have been entirely selfless. Those students cheering him could become his foot soldiers in Iowa and New Hampshire.

(On that count, students said Obama gained points over Clinton because admission to yesterday's rally was free. Clinton's event - more a fundraiser than a rally - cost at least $75 to enter.)

But for yesterday at least, Obama clasped hands with Cardin and hoped his appearance would get voters to see the studious but soporific Cardin in a new light.

"Ben is as cold as a cucumber," said James G. Gimpel, a professor of government at Maryland. "He's a knowledgeable person, but he's not especially warm."

Gimpel said the visits of high-profile Democrats to Maryland send a signal that Cardin is taking his Senate race - and his opposition - "dead seriously." He said it also sends a signal to Democratic voters that they cannot take a Cardin victory for granted. The hope is that the appearance of big-name Democrats will generate a high turnout of the Democratic base in November.

"In a state that's heavily Democratic, you don't want turnout to drop too much, and one way to do that is to bring in some high priority surrogates to campaign for you," Gimpel said.

From the reaction of some present yesterday, the strategy seemed to promise a payoff. Cardin may not generate excitement, but others might just be able to do it for him. Larkin Jones, 20, said she preferred Cardin's primary opponent, Kweisi Mfume, but the rally made her take a second look at the 10-term congressman.

"If a lot of the people I support - like [U.S. Rep. Steny H.] Hoyer and Obama - are supporting him, he must have something good to say," said Jones, who was taking a Cardin sign home to put up in her living room - "if my roommate allows it."

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

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