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One Race at a Time

By Russ Smith | Posted 8/23/2006

Itís too late in the game for Ben Cardin to shake up his campaign staff, but if he loses the Sept. 12 Democratic U.S. Senate primary to Kweisi Mfume, the longtime public servantís supporters will probably look back at last week as the critical turning point in the contest.

Mfume, whose fundraising has been dwarfed by that of his main rival, is concentrating on retail politicking by keeping up a relentless schedule of meeting as many voters as possible. More importantly, he hopes to be the beneficiary of the Baltimore-Washington mediaís coverage of the primary. And The Sunís Doug Donovan, in articles published in the space of four days, Aug. 15 and Aug. 19, must have caused at least private jubilation in the Mfume camp.

What in the world was Cardin thinking last week when he told a small gathering at the HopeWell Cancer Support Center that "We are going to lick cancer by 2015"? Donovanís story was damaging enough, but it was the dailyís headline writer who made Cardin appear quixotic at best, and desperate or slightly wacky at the worst. "Cardin promises cancer cure," said it all that day, causing head-scratching among political observers.

When John F. Kennedy announced his ambitious goal to send a man to the moon by the end of the 1960s, it seemed perhaps far-fetched (though ultimately successful), but he was already president. (Kennedy unveiled his plan at Rice University on Sept. 12, 1962.) Had Kennedy made that pledge during his tight election with Richard Nixon, it would have reinforced reservations that the two-term Massachusetts senator was too young and inexperienced to lead the nation.

Itís a simple matter of nuance. One of Cardinís strengths with Democratic voters is his advocacy of universal health care and support of embryonic stem-cell research, convictions that are backed up by his record in the House of Representatives. Had the usually cautious Cardin said instead that as a U.S. senator it would be his goal--his passion--to devote far more federal funds to the ongoing progress in battling cancer, it would have been received as an important signature issue in his campaign. But to set a timetable on "licking cancer," in a mere nine years, was politically foolhardy and the kind of promise thatís easy for comedians and conservative pundits to lampoon.

Right on cue, on Aug. 16, James Taranto, who compiles "Best of the Web" for the Wall Street Journalís web site, wrote the following: "So if cancer is on course to be Ďlickedí by 2015--and we certainly hope it is, regardless of the outcome of the Maryland Senate race--Cardin seems to be running out in front of the parade and pretending to lead it."

Mfumeís team, which has demonstrated remarkable resilience on behalf of a candidate who was counted out almost as soon as he began because of personal baggage and the inability to raise funds, was wise not to jump on Cardinís promise. Steve Marinoff, one of the former congressmanís spokesmen, said, "Kweisi Mfume . . . has also been a leading advocate of stem-cell research, which has the potential to revolutionize medical science."

Cardin is in a difficult position: He canít criticize Mfume on the hustings, let alone with televised attack advertisements, for fear of alienating the stateís large black population. Again, it was the headline to Donovanís Aug. 19 story, "Cardin skips primary plan, focuses on Steele," that telegraphed the kind of cockiness thatís never been associated with Cardin. On July 31, at a Silver Spring appearance with senior citizens, the congressman said, "Basically, the election on the Democratic side is among friends. Iím running against Kweisi Mfume, and Iím going to ask you to support me because of my record of getting things done."

Later that day, while Cardin told people attending a Landover event, "Weíve got great people running in the [Democratic] primary," Mfume took the opportunity (as reported in the Aug. 1 Washington Times) to needle the presumed front-runner. Mfume, who was also in Landover that day, pointed out that he also "drove 39 miles from the same event that Congressman Cardin is at" to meet with 50 people at the Islamic Society of Baltimore.

Not surprisingly, Ned Lamontís victory earlier this month over Joseph Lieberman in Connecticutís Democratic Senate primary has also buoyed the confidence of Mfumeís supporters, hoping for a "kick them all out" wave that could spread to Maryland. This appears somewhat fanciful, since Cardin, unlike Lieberman, has compiled a consistent record of opposing President Bushís prosecution of the war in Iraq. Still, if itís true, as the national media trumpets daily, that 2006 is another year of the "angry voter," Cardin could suffer minor backlash.

Cardin, should he become the nominee, will have almost two months to mount a vigorous campaign against the conservative Michael Steele, but in the meantime itís a strategic blunder to let Mfume slide by without any criticism, even if couched in gentle terms. If the newest batch of polls on the Senate race show what I expect is a continued too-close-to-call standoff between the opponents, someone in the Cardin campaign had better advise their candidate to go on the offensive. Otherwise, heíll be on the sidelines this November, a lifelong career in politics come to a sudden, and unexpected, conclusion.

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