Analysts assess Mfume damage

Kweisi Mfume's bid for the U.S. Senate has not been mortally wounded by reports of sexual harassment and favoritism under his watch at the NAACP, political experts said yesterday.

The accusations might undermine Mfume's ability to raise money and reach out to voters beyond his historic base of support in the Baltimore area, experts said. But the campaign could suffer fatal damage, they said, if additional revelations emerge.

"If there is nothing new- and this is the end of it -then depending on how effective his campaign team is, he can possibly survive it," said Julius Henson, a longtime Baltimore campaign strategist schooled in the art of bare-knuckle urban politics. "I think he should weather the storm, if there is nothing else."

Since becoming the first candidate to announce his intentions to succeed incumbent Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who is not seeking re-election, Mfume has been rocked by the disclosure of confidential reports prepared for board members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People concerning his relationships with women there. The reports examined - but did not verify - charges that Mfume promoted and gave salary increases to women with whom he and his son had personal relationships.

The relationships created a hostile environment for women at the Baltimore-based NAACP, the report said. Mfume has denied the allegations and said the report was given to the news media by his political enemies.

Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said that voters who sent Mfume, 56, to Congress for five terms will probably back him.

"People who support and respect Kweisi Mfume are not going to be fazed by these stories," said Schaller, who is backing Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin in the Senate contest. "I'm sure they see it as a hatchet job from disgruntled elements in the NAACP who don't like him. The real damage is that it will probably hurt his ability to raise money in the primary."

Political strategists said that Mfume could survive the primary, but that the accusations - along with his personal history, which includes fathering several children out of wedlock - would harm his chances at earning the support of conservative-leaning voters in the general election.

Mfume said in an interview yesterday that he would continue his run, adding that he has received warm receptions at political events in the past week.

"It's caused me to be buoyed in a way that is not always easy to be explained," Mfume said. "It's a reciprocal energy. I love campaigning."

Still, the allegations are destined to haunt Mfume regardless of his explanations, said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a longtime political observer.

If Mfume survives a primary, he will face a Republican opponent with $10 million or $15 million, plus millions more from Republican-leaning groups, a Maryland version of the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" group that hounded Sen. John F. Kerry in the presidential election last year, Miller said.

Negative ads, Miller said, would likely focus on Mfume's personal life - the five sons he fathered out of wedlock (and a sixth boy he adopted) and his NAACP tenure.

"There will be $7, $8, $9 million in private Swift Boat[-style] attacks just targeting him and his six children," Miller said. "Negative campaigning works, unfortunately. ... He's a wonderful orator and goes to speak to a crowd of 500 and is just marvelous, and then 20,000 get a negative mail piece from a Swift Boat committee, and it undoes tenfold everything he sought to achieve."

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican, is considering entering the race. Cardin and Mfume are the two major Democrats in the contest. A spokesman for Cardin did not return a telephone call yesterday; Steele's spokeswoman said the lieutenant governor would not comment on the allegations against Mfume.

Henson said that with 16 months until the Democratic primary and the field of candidates still uncertain, it is too soon for Mfume to abandon his run. "There may be stories on other candidates who are in that race," Henson said. "It's early, still."

Ronald Walters, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park and a political analyst on Black Entertainment Television, said the allegations hurt Mfume, but not critically.

American voters showed during President Bill Clinton's tribulations that they are willing to overlook a sex scandal if they believe more important issues are at stake, Walters said. He said he thinks that's the case among black Democrats in Maryland today.

"There's a strong feeling among African-American voters that there ought to be a black statewide [Democratic] official given the support African-American voters have been giving to the Democratic Party," Walters said. "That sentiment could really be the stuff to override this easily."

Mfume is running a campaign that has yet to garner establishment support. He launched his candidacy days after Sarbanes announced his retirement and without building up a network of support among party officials.

"He got into the race without talking to anybody in the elected official community, and it's going to be his decision to make in terms of whether he cannot just outlast these stories but whether he can have some chance of winning," Miller said.

Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader from Montgomery County, said Mfume has time to fight back, but needs to make a forceful denial promptly.

"Right now, I don't think he is damaged at all," Barve said. "It is in stasis, and people are waiting for him to respond. He's got a couple of news cycles to blow that accusation out of the water. If he doesn't, he will have been damaged."