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Cardin Faces First Big Test

He’s Been in Politics for 39 Years but Never Had to Run a Tough Race

As he kicks off his Senate candidacy this week, Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) carries many advantages into the race to succeed retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.).

With 39 years of elective office under his belt, he’s well-known across the state and is highly respected both at home and in Washington, D.C. His deliberative, cerebral style and passion for policy receives favorable comparisons to Sarbanes, who has held the Senate seat since 1977.

“I intend to carry on the work of Paul Sarbanes,” Cardin said Tuesday during his formal announcement speech at the Museum of Industry in Baltimore.

Along with these advantages, Cardin appears to enjoy broad, if muted, support from the Maryland Democratic establishment. And as the only Jewish candidate in the race, he is poised to reap political cash from some of the party’s most active national donors.

“He’s going to be a source of pride to the Jewish community,” said Edgar Silver, a retired district judge in Baltimore who is a distant relative of Cardin’s by marriage.

But in assessing what is shaping up to be a highly competitive Democratic primary, there is another part of Cardin’s history to also consider: For all his strengths, which will carry him far in the primary, the 61-year-old Congressman has never once competed in a close election.

His name has appeared on a ballot 30 times — in 15 Democratic primaries for the state House and Congress, and in 15 general elections. But never once has he had to sweat a race.

Twice he geared up to run for governor — in 1986 and 1998 — and backed off.

“It’s still a question to be answered, whether he has the political mettle to slug it out and be in the major-league limelight,” said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a Maryland polling firm.

By contrast, Cardin’s two likeliest Democratic primary opponents, former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who has already entered the race, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who has created an exploratory committee, have plenty of tough political contests under their belts.

Mfume fought the Baltimore political establishment to win a seat on the City Council in 1979. Seven years later, he defeated two well-connected state legislators, including the brother of the Congressman he was trying to succeed, in a nasty open-seat House primary. After serving in Congress for nine years, Mfume spent the next nine as president of the NAACP, where he waged high-profile battles with national political leaders, from President Bush on down.

Van Hollen ran an audacious campaign for state Senate in 1994, knocking off a Democratic incumbent in a contentious primary by a 40-point margin. Eight years later, he upset a member of the Kennedy clan, state Del. Mark Shriver, in the 8th district Democratic Congressional primary, then went on to unseat entrenched Rep. Connie Morella (R) in the general election.

Cardin, on the other hand, was the son of a prominent judge and the nephew of a state delegate. When his uncle received a political patronage job in 1966, the family paved the way for the younger Cardin, then a 23-year-old law student, to succeed him in the Legislature.

Cardin rose quickly in Annapolis, becoming a committee chairman and then Speaker of the House in 1979. He prepared to run for governor in 1986, but when then-Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer (D) decided to enter the race, Cardin deferred.

Luckily, there was a consolation prize: Then-Rep. Barbara Mikulski (D) was running for an open Senate seat, and despite the rarity of open House seats in the Free State, Cardin glided into Congress without a fight.

Twelve years later, Cardin came close to challenging then-Gov. Parris Glendening, who was plummeting in the polls, in a Democratic primary. But when several unions and environmental groups that had supported his Congressional campaigns signaled that they would stick with the incumbent — and when key local elected officials who were inclined to endorse Cardin said they wanted to wait to do so until after the 1998 legislative session — Cardin abandoned the race.

“Ben Cardin is very, very cautious,” said Silver, the retired judge.

But Jamie Fontaine, political director of Cardin’s Senate campaign, said the Congressman’s reluctance to run for governor in the past should not be interpreted as political cowardice. Instead, she said, Cardin made a determination that he could best serve Maryland by staying put.

“The Congressman in the past has never shied away from a fight merely because he thought it was a tough one,” she said.

Cardin himself seemed to address the point in his announcement speech, noting the political wars he’s waged outside the electoral arena.

“No one’s fought Republicans harder than I when Maryland’s future has been at stake,” he said.

And Cardin’s friends said the Congressman’s willingness to jump into the Senate race early, after passing on other statewide races, shows that he is determined to do what it takes to win.

“For Ben, it’s up or out,” said former Maryland state Sen. Barbara Hoffman (D), who shares Cardin’s political home turf. “He doesn’t enjoy being in the minority [in the House]. It’s much more divisive than it used to be. Opportunity doesn’t knock too much in this arena. For Ben, it’s the right thing at the right time.”

Still, some observers warned that the intensity of the campaign — and the primary in particular — could trip up even someone as seasoned and careful as Cardin. Running against Mfume, a friend and former colleague, could be especially tricky.

Cardin has enjoyed warm relations with the black community throughout his political career. But in a heated contest with Mfume, tensions between black and Jewish leaders could flare, and Cardin supporters may feel compelled to highlight Mfume’s controversial past as a youthful street hood.

“Cardin will potentially be facing a different situation running against Mfume, and Cardin may end up having to run to the center and deal with Mfume’s background while trying to avoid alienating the [Democratic Party’s] African-American base,” Haller said.

A national Democratic operative was even more blunt. “Basically, the [national party] is going to have black politics and Jewish politics to deal with,” the operative said. “They’re going to be in a bit of a pickle, I think.”

One disadvantage of never having run a tough election is that Cardin doesn’t have a seasoned campaign team around him. Fontaine, who has run some of his House campaigns, said that Cardin is just beginning to put together a campaign staff and hire consultants.

Mfume is also building a campaign on the fly after nine years out of elective office. But he is benefiting from advice from top-tier black Democratic strategists across the country.

And Van Hollen never dismantled his political team after his tough 2002 contest. He recently hired Mike Morrill, a former top aide to Mikulski and Glendening, to aid his exploratory committee.

But Fontaine said Cardin’s enthusiasm for the race will trump all. “It is an energized and excited Ben Cardin,” she said. “He is so ready to run a tough campaign.”

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