With Chesapeake Bay winds snapping at his suit jacket, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin stood at the edge of the Annapolis harbor yesterday as some of his longtime colleagues pledged to assist his run for U.S. Senate.
There was state Del. Pauline H. Menes, a Prince George's County Democrat who entered the General Assembly on the same day as Cardin in 1967. There was Democratic Sen. Philip C. Jimeno of Anne Arundel County, who said the first vote he cast as a lawmaker in 1979 was to elevate Cardin to the speaker's podium.
"These people know me, and they're still endorsing me," quipped Cardin, a Democrat. "It's very humbling, and it's very gratifying."
But will it be very helpful?
With the primary elections for heavily contested U.S. Senate and governor races more than a year a way, Cardin is trying to pull ahead in one of the games within the game of competitive campaigning. He is actively securing the backing of political leaders across Maryland, drawing on his longstanding ties to members of Congress, the General Assembly and local officeholders to give his run the appearance of momentum.
Political experts say that backing from other politicians is not necessarily an indicator of success, or the most important component of a winning strategy. But with so much time before the election, announcements such as Cardin's yesterday can help a candidate stay visible, and can help send signals to potential contributors that the candidacy is viable.
"At this point, it is mainly a signal to elites, and people who are in the fund-raising and donor community," said James G. Gimpel, a University of Maryland, College Park political science professor. "It is absolutely huge to the donor prospects to see that there is a candidate building momentum.
"You build support among prominent elites, and together with a substantial war-chest, and you begin to look like a 900-pound gorilla," Gimpel said. "And a 900-pound gorilla scares off a lot of smaller gorillas."
In contrast to Cardin, Kweisi Mfume, the other major announced Democrat in the race, has yet to receive the blessing of major political figures.
"Your candidacy can develop an image, either with a lot of endorsements or a lack of endorsements," said Kevin Igoe, a Republican campaign strategist.
"Why aren't African-American Democrats endorsing Kweisi? I think that is very interesting and strange," Igoe said. "A highly qualified candidate, first in the race, and he does not have a single endorsement from an elected official. I don't think that is a good message for Democrats to be sending African-American voters."
Mfume could not be reached for comment yesterday. But the former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is not troubled by Cardin's efforts, said campaign adviser Joe Trippi, adding that with some African-American leaders such as Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore still considering running, a dearth of support from black politicians is not surprising.
"The Cardin campaign is trying to do the classic 'inevitable' strategy: 'Look at all the endorsements, we are inevitable,'" Trippi said. "But that guy doesn't always win, and he doesn't always make the best candidate."
H. Harry Basehart, co-director of Salisbury University's Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, said endorsements matter little in the end, because they don't provide a substantial reason for voters to back a candidate.
"When it's very, very early, it can be of some benefit. But on Election Day, it is really going to depend on a candidate connecting with the voters on issues, and on style," Basehart said.
"Getting out to the Democratic clubs, the labor unions, Montgomery County organizations - those small, face-to-face meetings are much more important in the long run than the endorsement by state and local leaders," he said.
Cardin insisted that the 17 elected leaders from Anne Arundel who backed him yesterday - including Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer and county Sheriff George F. Johnson IV - were an indicator of his strength in a bellwether county where Republicans are trying to make gains.
"If a Democrat wins in Anne Arundel County, they will win statewide," said Cardin, who has represented the 3rd District that was redrawn after the 2000 Census to include portions of that county.
Notable in her absence yesterday was Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, a Democrat who cannot seek re-election because of term limits.
Owens' aides have said she is considering running for statewide office next year. The Capital newspaper of Annapolis reported yesterday that she is considering the Senate race. She was out of the country and unavailable to comment.
Next year's race for governor is expected to feature dueling endorsements. But Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has not formally announced his re-election bid, and potential Democratic rivals Douglas M. Duncan, the Montgomery County executive, and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley have yet to officially enter the race. Still, Duncan and O'Malley have been crossing the state, quietly laying foundations.
"Getting folks lined up, that is all part of the process. It's an important piece of the puzzle. It helps you gain support," said Scott Arceneaux, Duncan's campaign manager.
Recent state and national political history shows that the backing from political leaders can be overrated. Former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was defeated by Ehrlich despite many endorsements. County executives, such as Owens in Anne Arundel and former executive Wayne K. Curry in Prince George's County, won without support of the political establishment.
"We know that endorsements aren't everything," said Gimpel, the University of Maryland professor. "Howard Dean had some very prominent endorsements and became unraveled. The candidates' behavior still matters."