Cummings to urge Dean to withdraw from race


WASHINGTON - Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, who was an enthusiastic supporter of Howard Dean when he was the Democratic front-runner, plans to ask Dean to quit the race and free his supporters to back John Kerry before Maryland's March 2 primary.

Cummings, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he plans "in the next couple of days" - before the Wisconsin primary on Tuesday - to urge Dean to step aside.

"I think that we have all got to put aside our personal favorites and move forward to put forward a nominee who can win," Cummings said in an interview. "I think it's probably Kerry."

Cummings' move reflects growing uneasiness among some leading Dean supporters about continuing to back a winless candidate while missing the chance to join up now with their party's likely standard-bearer.

Doug Thornell, a spokesman for Dean, said last night that the former Vermont governor "values the support and hard work of Congressman Cummings" but differs with his assessment of the Democratic race.

"We feel confident that we will win Wisconsin and ultimately capture the Democratic nomination," Thornell said.

With Kerry emerging as his party's likely nominee, other Maryland lawmakers plan to endorse him before the state's Democrats go to the polls.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the Democratic whip, said he would announce an endorsement "sooner rather than later" and signaled that his pick will be Kerry.

Hoyer is working to organize a group of Maryland officials who will announce their backing of Kerry by the end of this month, congressional sources said.

Mayor Martin O'Malley of Baltimore, another of Dean's Maryland supporters, is sticking with the struggling candidate.

"The mayor is still backing Dean," said his spokesman, Rick Abbruzzese.

Dean, who said last week that he would quit the race if he lost the Wisconsin primary, only to reverse himself a few days later, has put his backers in an uncomfortable spot by saying he will remain a candidate into March, when Maryland and other states hold contests. Now, some of them are looking to shed their commitments to a contender who is 0 for 14 in the nomination fight.

One, Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick of Michigan, dropped her support for Dean this week after he finished a distant second in her state's contest.

Cummings said he remains reluctant to abandon Dean while he is still a candidate. "In this kind of situation," he said, "the rule is that you ride your horse until either the horse wins the race or the race is over."

But with Maryland's primary barely more than two weeks away and constituents looking to him for guidance, Cummings said it was time for him to rethink his position.

Hoyer had first backed Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. But Gephardt left the race last month and, in turn, endorsed Kerry last week.

Despite the pressure to rally behind Kerry, Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County said he will still back Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

"It's way too early" to quit, Wynn said, noting that 75 percent of the delegates needed to win the nomination will still be up for grabs after Tuesday.

Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County also backed Gephardt and have not endorsed anyone since he quit. Neither of Maryland's Democratic senators - Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes - has endorsed a presidential hopeful. Nor has Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County.

Sun staff writer Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.

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