An 18-month campaign was condensed into a sprint of hand-shaking, picnics and speeches yesterday for Maryland's leading Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate, as they made last-minute appeals for their supporters to vote in tomorrow's primary election.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and former congressman Kweisi Mfume, locked in what most polls show to be a competitive race to be their party's nominee to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, made a dozen campaign stops between them yesterday in what, because of today's anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, is likely to be the last full-fledged campaign day.
"People like to see you," Cardin said at a postal workers union picnic in Anne Arundel County, the third of his six stops yesterday. "I feel like I've gotten my message out. ... The focus today is on getting people out to vote."
"I feel great," Mfume said. "When you do this for 18 months ... you're thankful to get to this point and you're still standing and you feel good about what you've been able to do."
Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is expected to cruise to an easy win in the Republican senatorial primary, but neither he nor the successful Democrat will get much rest. The eight-week-out general election is expected to be a high-intensity, high-cost battle.
Dozens of other candidates were out yesterday, too, often running into each other in the effort to contact voters. At the Howard County Muslim Council Food Drive picnic, there were about as many candidates as voters.
At the end of the program, it took an organizer five minutes to read the names of all the candidates for school board, County Council, county executive, House of Delegates, state Senate, governor, House of Representatives and U.S. Senate who had crowded into the pavilion at Meadowbrook Park.
Mfume bounced from a morning service at the Empowerment Temple in Northwest Baltimore to another at his home church, New Shiloh Baptist.
"In the history of our state on Tuesday, we are electing the very first black senator," boomed an optimistic Dr. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor of the Empowerment Temple, as Mfume nodded his head in appreciation.
The more than 2,500 congregants hollered and clapped vigorously, rising to give him a standing ovation. Mfume rose, waving in appreciation, his image beamed from large-screen televisions.
"He is a wonderful man of leadership, a wonderful man of integrity," continued Bryant, who worked with Mfume at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which the former congressman headed. "The newspapers have tried to play the race low, that there's not much difference. But there is a world of difference."
Cardin also began the day at church, starting with 7:30 a.m. services at Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal in Fort Washington and then heading to Reid Temple AME in Glenn Dale for the 10:30 a.m. service.
As Cardin headed to the seat that had been saved for him in the front pew, he stopped to shake hands with fellow candidate Allan Lichtman, an American University history professor whose spirited campaign has shown little traction in the polls.
Per church policy, the Rev. Lee P. Washington gave each candidate a minute of pulpit time after the service, though that meant they had to follow his sermon about God's power to heal the soul and mind, a performance that stirred the congregation into a near frenzy.
"Your message is so relevant for all of us seeking office," Cardin said. "We've got to do better for everyone. We need to keep an independent voice in the U.S. Senate."
During Mfume's stop at New Shiloh Baptist Church, he sat in the third pew as the man he calls his spiritual leader, Dr. Harold A. Carter, invoked his name in a sermon on "Just Jesus - Who Stands Us On Our Feet."
"I don't know what drove Mfume to stand up to run for Senate," Carter said in the middle of the sermon. "But he's standing. But when I look at all the generations that one had to live through for this one opportunity to come - if he weren't standing, who would stand?"
Mfume said later that he "just wanted to make sure that I concluded my campaign here at my home church. You know I've only gotten here once a month, if I've been lucky. So I needed to be back here. This is home. These are my roots. These are people who will love me no matter what."
Cardin also went back to his base supporters yesterday to thank them for their help and remind them not just to vote but to help others do so, as well. The American Postal Workers Union Crab Feast and Bull Roast, on a finger of land reaching into the Chesapeake Bay in Pasadena, was awash with Cardin stickers, signs and T-shirts.
Postal workers, he told the crowd, have been his friends ever since he went to Congress 20 years ago.
"I need your help on Tuesday because I don't get to Nov. 7 until I get past Sept. 12," Cardin said, referring to the dates of the general and primary elections. "You have been with me in every election, and I need you with me on Tuesday."
Cardin shook nearly everyone's hand at the picnic before grabbing some sustenance for the campaign trail - a plate of pork barbecue, Italian sausage and green beans.
"I'm proud of the kind of campaign we've had," Cardin said between bites. "It's been on my record, my issues, and now it's up to the voters."
Cardin plans to attend a Sept. 11 memorial today and then spend his time traveling to campaign offices to thank his volunteers who will staff phone banks and door-to-door operations for tomorrow's primary. Mfume said he will be waving signs at street corners today, among other events.
"I expect to be the senator. I fully do," Mfume said.
"If by some great occurrence it doesn't happen, then I'm running for cover," he added, laughing.