Ben Cardin hears the flattering talk wherever he goes these days.
You're the one person who could do it, they tell him, the one Democrat with the stature and financial backing to withstand a rough party primary, defeat an incumbent Democratic governor and then beat the Republican.
Wherever he goes, the five-term congressman finds another feverish recruiter who hopes he will challenge Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the weakened Democratic incumbent.
Cardin and his wife, Myrna, listen and say they appreciate the kind remarks. "We'll keep mulling it," she says. "I really haven't considered," he says. "I don't feel I have to be on anyone else's timetable. We'll deal with it in due time."
Meanwhile, the pressure builds.
Party insiders predict that if Cardin were to make the move, fretful Democratic officeholders would see a passageway to electoral safety and other challengers might retire from the race to back Cardin.
"If Cardin gets in," says former Prince George's County legislator Timothy F. Maloney, "the waters will part."
But the insiders also predict Cardin probably won't risk the loss of a comfortable and satisfying life in Congress even to pursue the public office he's always wanted most, governor of Maryland.
"He's very cautious and he's just not a boat-rocker," says a Democratic Party official, hoping to avoid the difficult choices that would come for friends of both men.
At every rung on the electoral ladder, though, Maryland Democrats are wondering what 1998 will bring -- and who is likely to be their leader. They worry that Glendening's low standing could drag them to defeat.
"I don't want to be a dark suit in a lint factory," said one Maryland Democrat who asked not to be identified, discussing the likely dynamics of a race for re-election on a ballot with Glendening. If the governor is vulnerable, the official said, others on the ticket may be vulnerable.
A series of fund-raising controversies dropped Glendening to a low ebb in the approval polls. Some fear he can't recover, and a flock of potential contenders is already circling: Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger; Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann; House Speaker Casper R. Taylor; and, some hope, Cardin.
"I tell people who ask me that my first choice is for Parris to get back on his feet," says Del. Elizabeth Bobo of Howard County. "But I love Ben. Anything I can do for him, I'll do. He's absolutely a statesman. He's a leader. We need his honesty and courage and integrity."
Cardin appeals to many Democrats because he would come to the race with a solid geographical and political base in metropolitan Baltimore. He has broad statewide name recognition and the ability to raise money. He would have few issue liabilities in a Democratic Party that is still moderate to liberal.
If there is a down side to his candidacy, says former delegate Maloney, it might be Cardin's hyper-methodical approach to life.
Building 'brick by brick'
"He builds every house brick by brick," Maloney says. In a career now spanning 30 years, Cardin has yet to face a truly competitive race -- though he has taken more risks than he gets credit for. His skein of easy victories results from good luck and from a clear-eyed assessment of each race he considers.
There were those in 1986 who thought he should have stayed in the governor's race against William Donald Schaefer, then a nearly mythic figure on the Maryland political stage, an immensely popular and well-financed candidate.
Cardin thought that to have stayed in would have been foolhardy, not brave.
"I don't run to lose," he said last week. "I run to win. I don't run to make a statement. I'm very calculating."
Like the poker player he is, Cardin betrays no eagerness for the 1998 race -- if eagerness there is.
Now 53, Cardin has been a fixture in Maryland Democratic politics since the 1960s, when he was first elected to the House of Delegates.
"Ben was born into it," said Judge Richard Rombro, a former legislator and Annapolis lobbyist -- and one of Cardin's poker-playing buddies. He still plays once a month or so in a game that started "to keep us all out of trouble" in Annapolis, according to another of the players, former Baltimore County Sheriff Ned Malone.
Cardin impressed Rombro and others with an instinctive grasp of the lawmaking process and its attendant politics. In Annapolis, State House veterans warn: There's an official reason for a bill and there's the real reason.
"Ben always knew the real reason," Rombro says.
Cardin was elected shortly after he graduated from the University of Maryland Law School at the age of 24. At 31, he was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. And, as if foreordained, he was elected House speaker in 1979.
Cardin widened the circle of House leadership, including as many of the body's 141 members as possible in the inner circle and then, gently, making every vote a test of loyalty. He preached the value of a "group result" -- and while some muttered about tight control, most were content to follow.
He almost always prevailed on issues of importance. In 1984, Cardin led a fight to reform the state's then-generous and largely unfunded pension system for teachers and state employees. Unions threatened to retaliate by opposing those who voted for reform. No one was a more visible proponent, but Cardin never suffered politically.
A man of moderate height, a bit portly and balding, he reminds no one of Robert Redford. But he is not colorless.
"He has a great sense of humor," says Mary Jo Neville, vice chair of the state Democratic Party, who once worked for the #i congressman. "I was prepared for him to be smart. But I didn't know he'd be funny."
And a practical joker.
Ten years ago, Cardin bought one of the first cars with remote-control door locks and lights. One day, he stopped in the parking lot and said to an aide, "You won't believe what this car will do." If the aide would just say "Ben," the congressman said, the car's lights would go on.
"Ben," said the aide.
"Louder," advised the congressman.
"BEN!" shouted the aide. On came the lights as Cardin hit the magic button concealed in his hand. Only later, when a friend of the aide got a similarly equipped car, did she get the joke.
When he was younger, his mother purchased a 1959 silver-colored Chevy Impala with red leather bucket seats that Cardin and his older brother drove to school.
"For him to pick me up in that car was the ultimate," his wife says. "I would have waited after school an hour and a half."
Twenty-five years later, Cardin found his need for sporty cars unfulfilled. He bought a red Pontiac Fiero -- much to the concern of his wife and staff members. The congressman tends toward the A. J. Foyt school of driving.
"With him driving that car," says Neville, "you quickly developed a closer relationship with your God."
Cardin has plenty of opportunity to drive. He has worked in Washington for 10 years, but always comes back to Baltimore at the end of the day. While some have said the Cardins are now "of Washington," Myrna Cardin disagrees.
"Our lives really aren't there," she says. "Our lives are here. We don't stay there overnight more than once a year. There are endless opportunities for the wives of congressmen, but I have JTC my volunteer activities and my job here."
Some suggest Cardin might be attracted again to Annapolis because Washington is stymied by recurrent gridlock and budget deficits. Moreover, he's in the minority in Congress and could be there for some time.
But, he believes his work in the House has had an impact on the daily lives of Americans.
"He knows what he's doing is important," his wife says. "He's very comfortable with himself."
He was recently appointed to the budget committee, and he is one of four congressmen on the House ethics panel now considering charges against House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
When the GOP took control of the House in 1994, the former speaker from Maryland wrote Gingrich, offering to be of assistance.
"He didn't reply," Cardin says.
But Rep. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, sought Cardin out as a legislating partner.
"It is absolutely crucial to getting things done to have a Democratic ally because you have a Democratic president," Portman says.
As others have, Portman found Cardin's mental stamina and even temper a boon in late night negotiations.
"Ben doesn't allow emotion to alter his judgment. He's very steady," Portman says.
He is one of Congress' few outspoken proponents of curtailing the role of money in politics and he is the only one in Maryland's congressional delegation to assume such a position of leadership.
If he were to run for governor in Maryland, he said, he would consider renouncing private fund raising in favor of public funding. He was, as it turns out, an original sponsor of Maryland's public financing law back in 1974.
"I strongly support it," he says. He refuses to get on the telephone to ask for contributions.
"I won't do it. It's distracting and it's demeaning," he says.
When the time comes to decide about 1998, he says, he and his wife will ask themselves three questions:
A) Do we want a change in our lives?
If so, B) what sort of change?
If he decides to seek another public office, he will get to C) Is it doable?
Then he adds quickly: "I'm not even at A."
Ned Malone says his friend will know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.
For the moment, one could only say he's still in the game.
Pub Date: 12/18/96