Senate hopefuls nip heels of leaders


The Easter-egg-yellow school bus, windows rolled down to let in a breeze on an increasingly warm afternoon, pulls into a run-down auto repair shop on U.S. 1 in Bladensburg. Allan Lichtman - college-professor-turned-candidate-for-U .S.-Senate - bounds down the stairs of the bus and strides into the garage.

Armed with campaign literature, Lichtman launches into his well-rehearsed spiel. The four mechanics inside stare at him blankly. They don't speak English. They might not even be voters. Lichtman is undaunted. In his own version of Spanglish, Lichtman patiently tries to explain he wants to be in the Senate, which "makes laws for the whole country."

"Yo soy professor running to be elected el solo professor in the U.S. Senate," he says.

Such is the life of a lesser-known candidate for the U.S. Senate, a field crowded with 29 hopefuls vying for the seat being vacated by Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes, who is retiring. Eighteen are seeking the Democratic nomination and 10 the Republican nomination. One candidate is a Green Party member.

Less than a month before the primaries, some candidates will do whatever it takes to get noticed.

Candidates such as Lichtman complain that the news media and the political establishment have anointed U.S. Rep Benjamin L. Cardin and Kweisi Mfume, a former NAACP head and former congressman, as the front-runners on the Democratic side. (So, too, have a variety of political polls.)

At this point, it sometimes feels like a race for third place - in some cases, a time-consuming, exhausting, exhilarating and very expensive race for third place.

Lichtman, Montgomery County businessman Josh Rales and Dennis F. Rasmussen, a former Baltimore County executive and former state senator all contend that they are solidly in third place and gaining on Cardin and Mfume.

(Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele appears to have a lock on the Republican nomination).

They argue that Cardin and Mfume have not captured the imagination of the voters. Rales and Lichtman say the two front-runners are part of what is broken in Washington.

"If you're looking for a comfortable old shoe ... you can vote for one of my opponents," Rales said recently.

Election 'still open'

"They've had golden opportunities to put this away," Lichtman said as his bus bumped along the road. "They've gotten all the attention, and neither has gone anywhere. That's why this election is still open."

That is what brings these candidates out in the heat of the summer, when many voters haven't quite realized that there will be an election Sept. 12.

Lichtman and Rales are on bus tours around the state. Rasmussen has eschewed that for tours along the Chesapeake Bay in a supporter's 50-foot yacht, festooned with "Rasmussen for Senate" banners.

Sometimes they take to the streets - waving to commuters, planting signs in yards, knocking on doors. Other times they try an inside approach, bombarding computers with e-mail, bringing their voices to radio and their faces to television.

Rales, a political unknown at the start of the race, has become a familiar face on television in the past six weeks. He has spent nearly $4 million of his own money in what he calls an attempt to introduce himself over the airwaves.

The lanky, bespectacled businessman, whose net worth and income have been officially reported as $120 million, is a philanthropist and founder of the real estate investment firm Rales Family Investments. He has the luxury of telling voters - and he does repeatedly - that he won't take money from any special interest group.

His commercials, in which he exhorts viewers to read his plans on the Internet, are shown many times a day in Washington and Baltimore.

He is convinced that they are winning him fans. A stop on his bus tour this week indicated that he might be right.

"You following the Senate campaign?" he asks Troy McQuaige, a wine and spirits salesman whom he encounters as he walks down Main Street in Ellicott City after getting off his large, air-conditioned charter bus.

"You seen my ads?" Rales asks. McQuaige has. "Am I making any headway?" McQuaige concedes that the businessman has been getting through.

"I don't have all the answers, but I'm putting my ideas out there," Rales tells him. "Do we have any literature for this man?" he asks one of the several staffers milling around.

Talking policy

Inside a coffee shop, he talks policy. Education. Health care. Skyrocketing gasoline prices. The war in Iraq. He tells a table of retirees, three of whom have military backgrounds, that he has pledged to pull troops out of that country in March 2007. That would be four years after the U.S. invasion, longer than the United States was in World War II, he points out.

"You have any opinion on the Iraq war and what should we do?" he asks the four. "It's getting very costly in human lives and being there."

One woman, Eileen Graeff, says she's a little worried about the chaos that could ensue in the event of a rapid pullout. "We've led the Iraqis to the water," Rales says. "We can't make them drink."

Graeff tells Rales that she knew who he was when he walked into the shop. "I think your ads are very effective," she says. Still, she hasn't decided whom she will vote for.

Attorney James A. Vidmar Jr., at another table, says, "When someone comes and personally asks you to support them, that makes a difference."

On another day in another town, Lichtman has just finished taping a television ad - this one will run on cable, all the American University professor can afford - comparing Iraq to Vietnam. His pledge to end the war goes farther than Rales'. He says that as a senator, he would not vote to authorize another penny to pay for the war and would vote to approve money only to bring the troops home.

Lichtman and Rales say they have been asked by some Democratic leaders to get out of the primary, that there is a fear that they will be spoilers, taking votes away from Cardin. Lichtman, who has been a political pundit for years, calls such talk ridiculous. "It's not Cardin's seat; it's the people's seat," he said.

Besides, he said, no one should vote based on who they think will win. Look at Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. four years ago, he said. He wasn't supposed to beat Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the 2002 gubernatorial race, but he did. One team is usually favored in a sporting event, he said, but those games are played anyway.

And if you vote your gut - instead of trying to outsmart the system - you'll be able to live with yourself in the morning, he said.

"Political prediction is a more uncertain and difficult science than nuclear physics, but people still think they can predict elections," Lichtman said.

"Underdogs sometimes win. That's why we have elections."

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