Cardin, Mfume's long friendship sets tone for Senate race

The Baltimore Sun

It was early in the campaign, as Kweisi Mfume remembers it, a private moment shortly after Benjamin L. Cardin joined him in the race for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. It would be the first time in their long political careers that the old friends and collaborators would be running against each other.

"I said to him and Myrna [Cardin's wife], 'This is probably the most awkward thing you and I are going to do,'" Mfume recalled. "'But we've got to do it, now that you're in.'"

They entered Congress together, the black City Council member from West Baltimore and the Jewish former speaker of the House of Delegates from Baltimore County. Similar politically, if not stylistically, they visited each other's congressional districts, co-hosted community meetings, even made a trip to Israel together.

"We struck up a friendship from Day One," Cardin said. "We basically shared a seat. We talked about every issue and tried to promote a unified front for the city of Baltimore."

Now, as they compete for the nomination to succeed Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, that two-decade friendship has set the tone for the Democratic primary campaign - a contest that ends when the polls close tomorrow.

While several of the long-shot candidates have taken swings at the two front-runners, Mfume and Cardin have laid off of each other.

"What you see is not a gentle campaign, but it's certainly not slash and burn," said Matthew A. Crenson, a professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. "We're not seeing any personal attacks in this primary, and that probably reflects the fact that they have a long history together."

Whether the civil tone of the primary campaign will prove helpful in the general election against likely Republican nominee Michael S. Steele is another question.

Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says the amity between Cardin and Mfume should help to foster Democratic unity against the lieutenant governor.

"Whoever wins, there aren't going to be any hard feelings," Norris said. "There won't be the kind of personal animus that often occurs when attack politics and negative politics are used. So it should be relatively easy for the party to come together."

But Zach Messitte, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland, says the survivor of a rough primary campaign can benefit from early exposure to opposition attacks. He points to the race between Baltimore Mayor O'Malley and his erstwhile rival for the Democratic nomination for governor, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

"What O'Malley had to go through ... where he was getting pounded on a day-by-day basis by Duncan, particularly on Baltimore City schools, I think a lot of that stuff in the end helped O'Malley because now it's old news," Messitte said. "That airing of the dirty laundry early on, that back and forth early on, I think strengthens the primary candidate because now they've got effective talking points."

In a Democratic race that also includes American University professor Allan J. Lichtman, Montgomery County businessman Josh Rales and former Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen, Cardin and Mfume have run on their own records and plans. On the stump, Cardin seldom mentions his chief opponent.

"Kweisi and I are friends, and I think we share a common vision about America's future," he said during a recent debate.

Mfume does highlight what he says are the differences between the two. Cardin voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement while Mfume voted against the pact. Cardin has accepted corporate political action committee money; Mfume says he returned the two corporate donations he has received this election cycle.

More broadly, Mfume has cast himself as an advocate and Cardin as an administrator.

"An administrator is going to preside in the Senate, and an advocate is going to stand up and fight and lead," Mfume said. "And he would be a good administrator. But I would be a good advocate."

"I'm not sure what he means by that," Cardin said. "I happen to have been a very good speaker of the House [of Delegates], with strong leadership. I've worked to bring change in Washington under very difficult circumstances."

When asked about the differences between himself and Mfume, Cardin demurs.

"I'm not one that's good at doing that," he said. "I'm presenting my record, and what I've been able to do in a difficult environment. I don't really try to compare myself to any one else. I've never done that in any of my campaigns."

According to Messitte, the different approaches reflect the candidates' different positions in the race. Mfume, who has trailed Cardin in several polls, is working to show how he differs from his friend. Cardin, meanwhile, has held his tongue.

Cardin "realizes that if he wins the primary, he has to have the support of the African-American community that traditionally votes Democratic," Messitte said.

"If you believe the polls that overwhelmingly show Mfume getting the majority - not all, but the majority - of his support from African-Americans," he said, Cardin "can't afford to alienate that group."

The approach is similar to that adopted by President Bill Clinton in his 1996 re-election campaign against Sen. Bob Dole, when Clinton attempted to reach out to Republican voters by promoting their working relationship.

"I like Senator Dole," the Democratic incumbent said in their first debate. "You can probably tell we like each other. We just see the world in different ways, and you folks out there are going to have to choose who you think is right."

Of course, in Washington, politicians are quick to refer to each other as "my friend." Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman learned the worth of such bonhomie last month, when self-declared "friends" who had supported him in Connecticut's Democratic primary dropped him as soon as he lost to anti-war challenger Ned Lamont.

Mfume and Cardin have maintained contact throughout the campaign. Each called the other before announcing his decision to run, and they have continued the conversation.

"We talk," Cardin said. "We talk about taking a day off, if we can agree on the same day - but we never have. We talk about issues, other candidates. We talk about each other's families."

Norris describes the friendship between Cardin and Mfume as something of a gift to voters.

"It's kept it civil, highly civil," he said. "And it has meant that you've got a couple of guys out there talking issues and their accomplishments and their views, rather than tearing each other apart, which to my way of viewing politics, is welcome and long overdue."

But Messitte warns that the good feelings might come to a halt after tomorrow, when the Democrats will have chosen their candidate to face Steele, the presumptive Republican nominee.

"I do think that the general election will probably be a nastier affair," he said. "Both sides will come after each other, and because the polls show it very close, that means that they probably will come after each other a bit harder.

"My guess is that if you're an opposition researcher for either candidate, you've got stuff in the canister ready to go. It just depends on how high they want to ratchet it up."

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