When she arrived for her senior aerobics class at the Randallstown Community Center the other morning, Mrs. Willie Tombs was surprised to bump into Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
Tombs got a kiss and hug from the Democratic veteran, along with a gentle reminder that "we're doing early voting now. Can we count on you to turn out?"
The answer was yes. After the senator moved on, the Pikesville resident said she's been personally familiar with Mikulski "for years. I knew her when she was a social worker" in East Baltimore in the 1960s.
In a fast-changing campaign world, where voting lasts weeks, tea partiers take a sledgehammer to conventional politicians and Republicans prepare to take over Congress, polls show the familiar figure of Barbara Ann Mikulski cruising to another re-election victory.
She's doing it the old-fashioned way: reconnecting with voters who've known her for years, by waving on street corners, appearing at Democratic functions, collecting millions for image-polishing commercials and reminding anyone who'll listen how she delivers taxpayer dollars back to her home state.
"I worked my earrings off," she likes to tell voters, on everything from health care to cybersecurity to dredging the Port of Baltimore.
Campaign events are designed to highlight her work as a senator: ribbon cuttings and walking tours of facilities that benefited from the federal bucks she's procured. Hardly a day passes without her staff cranking out another press release touting a new federal grant for Maryland.
Unlike fellow liberals facing tough re-election fights, including California's Barbara Boxer and Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, Mikulski is comfortably ahead of her Republican opponent, by roughly 2-1, polls show.
Once again, the state's strong Democratic tilt and the Republicans' failure to field a top-tier challenger worked to her advantage. She drew an obscure opponent, Eric Wargotz, a commissioner from tiny Queen Anne's County, who lacked the resources to put up much of a fight and appears destined to follow the likes of Ross Z. Pierpont and E.J. Pipkin into the annals of her vanquished foes.
If Mikulski is re-elected this week and completes the six-year term, she would tie former colleague Paul S. Sarbanes as the longest-serving senator in Maryland history. It is a title that the Baltimore politician would be proud to add to her distinction as the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right.
But in an interview, she brushes aside such talk.
"I'm not keeping the records. Whatever the almanac stuff says," she said.
Adept at navigating shifting currents of public opinion, she no longer touts the work of President Barack Obama the way she did last year. In the interview, she described herself as "an independent" and says "I'm ready to break with Obama" on such issues as the federal work force (his possible job freeze is too broad, she said, and, unlike the president, she won't talk about furloughs) and inheritance taxes (he would tax estates over $3.5 million; she'd exempt everyone up to $10 million).
Still famously feisty at 74, she was sidelined a year ago after shattering her ankle in a fall. In typical fashion, she's worked that setback into her stump speech: "I didn't hit my head. And I sure didn't hit my mouth," she told a roomful of seniors at an assisted-living center in Columbia last week.
Like the "Senator Barb" moniker in her campaign ads, the self-deprecating line seems designed to soften the image of one of Washington's most demanding bosses.
She admits she's "a real perfectionist," but says she holds herself to the same high standards she applies to others.
"You can't be the daughter of a grocer, where you had to make sure everything was meticulously clean for food-safety purposes, and be taught by the nuns to sit up straight and make sure your knee-highs were straight" and not be, she said.
But at the same time, she resists attempts to get beneath the surface of her public persona.
Questioned about ways in which she might have disappointed herself over the course of a long career, she said she "wished I could have eaten less french fries." Pressed for a more serious response, she repeats the answer, word for word.
Her health is good, she said, adding that she remains "highly energized and highly motivated." Though she had told the seniors, moments earlier, that her father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, she refuses to discuss how she might know if it was time to retire.
"It's not that I don't have plans, but I don't sit around and say, well, if my blood pressure reaches oh-point-two or if I need to go to whatever with my eyeglasses. I haven't thought about it," she said.