WASHINGTON -- A few years ago, eager to fight a waistline expansion that seems inevitable among denizens of Capitol Hill, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin sought out a nutritionist for help. Among her suggestions was this mandate: Always eat breakfast at home, no matter what's on the day's schedule.
Cardin has dutifully followed that advice ever since. But the 10-term congressman from Baltimore County finds that healthful concession - as well as most other leisure activities - increasingly difficult to squeeze in as he intensifies his 15-month-old campaign for the U.S. Senate. In juggling his day job with the incessant demands of a run for higher office, the 62-year-old has pared back his outside interests.
"I've limited myself to three priorities: carrying out my responsibilities as a congressman, running for the United States Senate, and tending to my family responsibilities," Cardin said in a recent interview.
He jokes that that means he doesn't eat or sleep very much. And, often, his combined schedule stretches from a breakfast campaign appearance to a committee meeting, through an evening spate of House votes and on into a nighttime fundraiser. Cardin says the often demanding - and always unpredictable - congressional schedule has caused some friction within his Senate campaign, forcing him to miss events he'd prefer to attend and preventing him from focusing on becoming the Democratic nominee in the race to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.
But Cardin said he has to put his constituents first and relishes the platform, his for nearly 20 years, to influence policies ranging from trade pacts to Social Security.
"It's an incredible opportunity you have in Congress," he said.
Despite the rough schedule, Cardin has missed only a handful of House votes since plunging into the Senate race in April 2005. It's easier for him than many other members of Congress aiming for higher office, since rushing to the U.S. Capitol is a matter of a quick trip down the highway.
During his tenure in the House, Cardin has carved out influential niches for himself: As the top Democrat on a powerful trade subcommittee, he speaks with pride about his work crafting agreements to knock down barriers to the free flow of commerce between the U.S. and other nations.
On occasion, he has put his concerns about fair practices for workers - labor unions are some of his most ardent supporters - over his support for free trade. This month, he voted against a trade pact with Oman, the second time he has opposed such an agreement.
Cardin has also been a dogged advocate for improving the nation's health care system, most recently pressing the Bush administration to extend the deadline for seniors to sign up for the new Medicare prescription drug benefit.
That effort failed, but Cardin said health care - along with education, reducing the budget deficit and working toward energy independence - is a central part of his plans for change, should he be elected to the Senate.
Cardin, whose first run for office in 1966 resulted in his election to the Maryland House of Delegates while he was still a law student, is well-known in state and national political circles as the ultimate under-the-radar man.
In Washington, where partisan polarization has become an almost religious fervor, Republicans and Democrats alike praise him for his willingness to reach across the aisle and salvage compromise from all but the most extreme situations.
Cardin is an unabashed liberal, but he's also a dealmaker. In 2001 he successfully pushed to add a provision increasing tax savings for pension benefits to tax-cut legislation promoted by President Bush - but then stuck with his party and voted against the package.
In late 2002, Cardin voted against authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq, a vote that, he says now, was unpopular in his home district.
"I was pretty confident it was the right vote when I made it," he said, and going into this fall's elections, it also means Cardin finds himself in line with an increasing number of voters, especially in Maryland.
"He's a partisan, like I am, but he is very inclined to sit down with people and try to see if they can reach a mutual meeting of the minds," said Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House and a close friend who has endorsed Cardin.
However, the qualities that have become Cardin's signature - the type of consensus-building skills that made him one of the youngest state House speakers in Maryland history - don't always translate into notoriety.
Cardin is professorial, with a decidedly wonkish air. Volume is his most frequent rhetorical tool - rather - he raises his voice in speeches when he wants to drive home a point; most of the time, he is a quiet, calm speaker, methodically outlining his ideas about a particular subject.
Hoyer, who has been plotting political strategy with Cardin for decades, said he has frequently prodded his friend to ratchet up the passion.
"He is so even-tempered. Even when he gets angry, he's even tempered," Hoyer said. "It frustrates me - I say, 'No, we've got to get angrier, Ben!'"
The Senate race has suited Cardin's political style. In comparison with other contested Senate races around the country, Maryland's has been positively sleepy. From the beginning, most political analysts have viewed the Democratic contest as a two-man race between Cardin and Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but the anticipated fireworks have largely failed to materialize, at least so far.
"Essentially, I look at this race this way: It's a race between the well-funded, and maybe better-known, Cardin, against the underfunded but very well-known Mfume," said Jennifer E. Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
The most recent Sun poll showed Cardin locked in a virtual tie with Mfume in a Democratic primary, with no other candidate getting significant support. More than a third of likely Democratic voters were undecided, however. The survey question, asked of 604 Democratic voters, had a margin of error of 4.1 percentage point.
Cardin, Mfume and any other Democratic candidate who can get traction need to show voters their resumes and tell them how they can fill the shoes of Sarbanes, a legend in Maryland politics. Duffy said that it's clear that Mfume is comfortable on the stump, but both candidates need to spend more time there.
"I have yet to see how comfortable Cardin is, because I haven't seen him out there," she said.
Knowing that his popularity in his home district would mean little in the vote-rich counties near Washington, Cardin has spent far more time in the past year in places like Montgomery and Prince George's counties than the more familiar environs of Baltimore and its suburbs.
His congressional district, which includes Annapolis, parts of Baltimore and areas of Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, has become more Republican because of redistricting during his time in Congress, but Cardin said he's confident that he has a strong base of support there.
Mfume, who has raised far less money but is close to Cardin in opinion polls, has accused state party leaders of anointing the congressman as the nominee.
Cardin takes serious exception to that idea, bristling as much as the normally mild-mannered candidate can. Calling Mfume "well-qualified" and a friend, Cardin says he respects the way Mfume has campaigned so far.
But he is quick to speak the next sentence.
"I was not 'selected' by anyone to run for the United States Senate. Every supporter, every endorsement, every check I've been able to get, I have had to go out and work for," Cardin said.
It's obvious that Cardin is itching to take on Steele, but he is careful to emphasize how seriously he takes the Sept. 12 primary. It's easier to wait for the late contest, he said, because his strategy will be the same in the general election, should he make it that far, as it is now.
"At the end of the day, I think Marylanders are going to vote for the person who they believe can best represent their interests," Cardin said.