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Top Md. Democrats back Kerry for president


WASHINGTON - Much of Maryland's Democratic establishment united yesterday behind John Kerry, their party's presidential front-runner, urging voters a week before the state's primary to cast their ballots for the Massachusetts senator.

Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes joined Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore, Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County and Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County in endorsing Kerry.

They were joined by Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, Howard County Executive James N. Robey, and Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr..

The group's nod could hold substantial sway on March 2, when Maryland and nine other states hold important Super Tuesday contests that pit Kerry against North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

"John Kerry will bring back job growth, keep America stronger and safer, fight to make health care affordable, work to ensure our children receive a quality education and protect our environment," the leaders said in a written statement.

Conspicuously absent from the list of supporters was Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, a one-time supporter of Howard Dean, who said recently that he would urge the former Vermont governor to quit the presidential race so Democrats could unite behind Kerry. Dean withdrew last week.

"I'm still talking to Kerry," said Cummings, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, who said he had been lobbied "big time" by Kerry's and Edwards' camps to back their candidate. "I want to make sure that whoever the Democratic nominee is - and, hopefully, the eventual president - they are concerned and sensitive about being fair to one of their most loyal constituencies, African-American voters."

Cummings said he would announce an endorsement by the end of the week.

Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County, a strong Edwards supporter, also broke with the group and played down the significance of the endorsement.

"I think his chances are very good," Wynn said of Edwards. "Endorsements don't win primaries."

Wynn struggled this week to persuade Maryland Democrats to refrain from backing the surging Kerry, who has won 15 contests out of 17 in the Democratic race so far, while Edwards has won just one.

On the other side was Hoyer, the Democratic whip, who worked hard behind the scenes to round up support among prominent state leaders and time the announcement of their backing for maximum political effect.

"We've got to get moving - we've got to get the focus on Bush," Sarbanes said last night. Kerry "can carry a good, strong campaign against Bush. ... We need to focus our attention and our resources on the election that's going to take place in November, and get at it."

Kerry, who said in a statement that he feels "truly honored" to have the Marylanders' support, is planning a campaign stop in Baltimore - his first in the state - on Monday.

Cardin, Hoyer and Ruppersberger formerly supported Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who dropped out of the race after coming in fourth in Iowa, and endorsed Kerry this month.

Sun staff writer Ariel Sabar contributed to this article.

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