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Van Hollen Balances Three Tough Roles

He sits on three House committees.

He’s the chief recruiter for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

And now he’s traipsing across the Free State as he ponders whether to run for Senate in 2006.

Is Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) overextended?

He says no.

“Obviously it’s juggling a lot of things but I’m trying to do it without dropping any balls,” the 46-year-old Congressman said.

More importantly, from his colleagues’ standpoint: Is Van Hollen’s work for the DCCC suffering at a time when House Democrats require all the help — and blue-ribbon recruits — they can get?

DCCC officials, who need to win 15 seats to retake control of the House, also say no.

“He’s been doing a phenomenal job and continues to be dedicated to the effort,” said Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the committee.

Van Hollen said he spends several mornings a week on the telephone, talking to prospective Democratic candidates. And every Thursday morning, the DCCC’s nine-member recruiting team — along with DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) — meets to discuss the week ahead and parcel out assignments to everyone in attendance.

“I have made it a point to go all out on this recruiting thing,” Van Hollen said.

But Van Hollen also is aggressively exploring whether to join the race to replace retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.). Of the three leading Democrats — Rep. Benjamin Cardin and former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume have already declared their candidacies — Van Hollen by far has the most campaign cash.

But that advantage is counter-balanced by the pressure on his time.

Here’s an example of what Van Hollen’s days are like: After convening the recruiting team meeting at the DCCC last Thursday, the Congressman focused on his committee work during the afternoon — he sits on Judiciary, Government Reform, and Education and the Workforce. Then he traveled in the evening to Baltimore and Washington County, in western Maryland, for political events.

“The [light] Congressional schedule helps,” he said.

One senior Democratic aide said the DCCC’s operation won’t be hindered even if Van Hollen is focused on running for the Senate, or if his candidacy forces Emanuel to name a new chief recruiter. That’s because Emanuel, in contrast to some of his predecessors, is an aggressive chairman who never hesitates to jump on an airplane if he feels it’s necessary to lean on a wavering prospect.

“It’s a nonissue,” said the Democratic aide. “The recruiting is done by Rahm Emanuel, the DCCC and the staff — that’s who always does it.”

Van Hollen said that if he winds up running for Senate — and he said he’ll announce his plans “in a month or two at the latest” — he would “pass the baton” on the recruiting job. Feinberg said there are several Members capable of quickly taking over if Van Hollen makes a Senate bid.

Opinions differ about whether Van Hollen ultimately will run.

In contrast to Cardin, who has spent 20 years in Congress and 40 years in elective office, and Mfume, who spent 10 years in the House prior to nine running the NAACP, Van Hollen is in just his second term in Congress. But he did spend a dozen years in the state Legislature and also worked as a Senate staffer.

Van Hollen is intensely ambitious and has been unafraid to take political risks, even potentially career-ending risks, since first being elected to the Legislature in 1990. Some supporters privately worry that he could be throwing away a promising House career by running for the Senate next year and losing.

“He worked so hard for this,” one adviser said of Van Hollen’s path to Congress. “I’d hate to lose him.”

On the other hand, if winding up in the Senate is Van Hollen’s ultimate goal — as most people who know him suspect it is — then there may be no better opportunity than running for Sarbanes’ seat.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) isn’t up for re-election until 2010. While she’ll be 74 then, there’s no guarantee she won’t seek a fifth term. Even if she does retire, there’s no telling what the state’s political climate will be like in five years and what political superstars will be angling for a Senate vacancy.

Although a poll conducted for The Baltimore Sun last month found Van Hollen running third in a primary behind Mfume and Cardin, he is less well-known statewide than the other two — a name recognition gap he easily could make up with an aggressive, free-spending campaign.

What’s more, Mfume’s camp has been hit in recent weeks by allegations that he showed favoritism to certain employees during his tenure at the NAACP. He has denied the charges, but if his political standing is weakening, that could work to Van Hollen’s benefit.

On the other hand, Mfume is a full-time candidate without a day job. Cardin has his Congressional duties but no added DCCC responsibilities. That could make it tougher for Van Hollen to compete.

“It’s amazing what you do when you cut out sleep,” he said.

Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.

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