Rep. Chris Van Hollen has raised a pile of campaign cash, hired a high-profile consultant, taken polls and made a string of appearances across Maryland.
Van Hollen, a Democrat from Montgomery County, says he will make a decision by early next month. Until then, despite all the outward trappings of a campaign for higher office, he's sticking to the same lines he has uttered since March: He is seriously considering it and has been getting encouragement from the people he's talked to all over the state.
"It's obviously a big decision. I think it's appropriate to approach it in a deliberative manner," he said. "You obviously can't stand still during this process or you do lose ground. That's why I've been using this time to get out and about."
He was out last night, at an AFL-CIO dinner just off the Baltimore Beltway, west of the city. Arriving late but hitting his stride quickly, Van Hollen mingled among dozens of local and state officials and labor representatives, then gave a brief speech. Soon enough, Sarbanes himself walked in, then came Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a declared candidate for the Senate.
The advertising-heavy program for the dinner featured a full-page ad paid for by Van Hollen's congressional campaign. Many other candidates or current officeholders also bought ads.
Over the next few weeks, Van Hollen is expected to announce whether he is taking the plunge against more established Democratic candidates, Cardin and former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume, or running again for the House, perhaps to wait until Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski retires.
Even this far before the primary, the competition is serious. At last night's dinner, there were plenty of "Ben Cardin for Senate" stickers in evidence.
Rep. C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who considered running and is now backing Cardin, said the choice is a difficult one for Van Hollen.
"You can never accomplish anything in life unless you have the courage to get into the ring, and that's what you have to decide," said Ruppersberger, who was elected in 2002, along with Van Hollen. "The fact is, this is an opportunity that might not come along again for a long time."
Van Hollen - who knocked off longtime Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella to win his seat - said his guideposts are what his family thinks, and whether he is the best person to help the Democratic Party hang on to Sarbanes' seat.
With Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. up for re-election next year and his lieutenant governor, Michael S. Steele, considered the most likely Republican Senate candidate, the Maryland race is emerging as one of the top contests to watch nationwide.
"Assuming we are going to be facing Michael Steele in the general election, the question is, what do we need to do to make sure we win that race?" Van Hollen said.
Despite not declaring himself a formal candidate, Van Hollen has hired a state political veteran, Mike Morrill, to head his exploratory effort. During the first quarter of this year, he raised in excess of $300,000 - far more than either Cardin or Mfume, whose campaigns were just getting out of the gate when those figures were reported.
But in a poll by The Sun in April, Van Hollen ran a distant third among the Democrats. Only 16 percent of respondents said they would support him in a primary race, compared with 32 percent for Mfume and 26 percent for Cardin, both of whom have deep roots in Baltimore.
Van Hollen said his own polling has been "encouraging," and that fund raising is continuing to go well, though he would not discuss totals. Many political observers expect his decision to be driven, at least in part, by the amount that he has been able to raise in the period that ends June 30.
The prospect of getting into the race is understandably tempting: Sarbanes was elected in 1976, and Mikulski, who came to the Senate 10 years later, won another six-year term last November. It's a tricky political calculus, said Thomas F. Schaller, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County political scientist who supports Cardin.
Mikulski, who will turn 69 next month, could decide in 2010 that she wants another term, he noted, potentially making a decision by the 46-year-old Van Hollen to sit out this race a decade-long wait.
"If I knew it was only four [years], I would probably cool my jets," Schaller said. "If it's 10, I run now."
Another factor is whether a three-way primary might damage the ultimate winner in the general election. Van Hollen insists that no Democratic leaders have explicitly told him not to run, and Derek Walker, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, said the organization is taking a hands-off approach.
"Chris is incredibly bright and capable. And you know there's no doubt that he, along with the others already in the race, would be a fantastic United States senator," Walker said.
Schaller said he doesn't think anyone is trying to "bully" Van Hollen out of the race but that some have been telling him to wait his turn. Cardin has collected a number of endorsements, including from Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, who represents Southern Maryland and is the No. 2 Democrat in the House, and from some politicians in Van Hollen's county.
Van Hollen said the race is about who can win, a choice that is up to the voters. He gets along well with Cardin and Mfume, he said, adding that all of them are united in wanting to keep the seat in Democratic hands.