Hours after his quest for U.S. Senate ended in a narrow defeat in Tuesday's Democratic primary, Kweisi Mfume was faced with a simple question: What next?
One of the first possibilities to surface was Baltimore mayor.
Mfume, who launched his public career 27 years ago at City Hall, showed Tuesday that he remains influential in Baltimore, winning his hometown by nearly the same margin that Mayor Martin O'Malley posted in his 2003 Democratic primary victory.
If O'Malley succeeds in unseating Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in November, City Council President Sheila Dixon will automatically become mayor until the city's 2007 elections. Many believe that if Mfume wants the job, he would be tough to beat.
"He's available, and he's a star," said Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "It might be a good option for him. If he does run he's almost sure to win."
Mfume said in an interview yesterday that it is too early to say what he will do next and that he is focused on personally thanking supporters for getting him within percentage points of beating Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin for the Democratic Senate nomination.
With most precincts reporting yesterday, Cardin won statewide with 230,826 votes, or 44.1 percent. Mfume received 208,267 votes, or 39.8 percent, with, as he says proudly, "no endorsements, no money, no anything." But in Baltimore, Mfume received 45,743 votes, beating Cardin by a margin of 63 percent to 31 percent.
In the 2003 mayoral primary, O'Malley received 58,178 votes, or 66 percent, to Andre Bundley's 32 percent. It was the largest margin of victory in a Baltimore mayoral primary in 20 years.
"I have been so focused for 18 months on this race, I have not thought about life beyond it," said Mfume, who lives in Baltimore. "I'm sure that I'll be involved in some form of public service."
Many city officials said Mfume would be a hard-to-beat candidate for mayor but that they have no idea if he is interested. They believe he could land a high-profile job at any national organization focused on public-interest issues.
"His possibilities are unlimited," said state Sen. Verna L. Jones, a Baltimore Democrat. "He could be influential in so many different areas."
Del. Ruth M. Kirk, a Baltimore Democrat, said Mfume could have been mayor in 1999 -- the year O'Malley was elected -- had the former NAACP president decided to enter the race as many had encouraged him.
"He knows how to bring everyone together. He'd get the support of the churches and the unions," Kirk said. "If he didn't do it before, why go back and be second?"
Would a move to mayor be a step back for a man who escaped poverty in Baltimore to become a nationally known leader -- having moved from city councilman to congressman to president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People?
Pioneering black politician L. Douglas Wilder went from being the first African-American elected governor in Virginia and the nation in 1990 to being Richmond mayor two years ago.
"No form of public service is insulting," Mfume said in response to a question about whether mayoral speculation was offensive. "Different people have different plans for you -- usually without consulting you."
Baltimore City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. said he has heard that if Mfume lost the Senate race, running for mayor in the city's 2007 election could be an option.
"Obviously, he ran a fantastic campaign. He would obviously be a viable candidate [for mayor], ... viable or formidable," Mitchell said. He said a possible Mfume campaign for mayor would depend on whether O'Malley beats Ehrlich on Nov. 7.
Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. agreed, but said Mfume would be a tough candidate no matter what the outcome of the governor's race.
"Regardless of who's in the race [for mayor in 2007] -- O'Malley, Dixon -- he'd still be a formidable candidate," Harris said.
Arthur W. Murphy, a partner at Democracy Group, an Annapolis-based political consulting firm, said the mayor's office would be an "easy win" for Mfume, but that all such discussions were purely speculative.
"The only reason he wouldn't run for mayor is that he doesn't want to be mayor. It's a thankless job," Murphy said. "I don't think it matters if O'Malley wins governor. If [Mfume] wants it, he'll go for it. If not, he won't."
Dixon said Mfume will not run.
"First of all, Kweisi has told me that he doesn't plan to run for mayor," Dixon said. "During this general election between Cardin and Steele, I think Kweisi Mfume could be significant in influencing the Democratic Party, and I think for now that's what we need to focus on, to make sure that Ben Cardin is elected. I think Kweisi could play a tremendous role in making that happen."
Mfume said Cardin has his support.
"He was my friend before I got in, and we'll be friends afterward," Mfume said. "He'll be a damn good senator."
He reiterated that all such speculation about his career is premature and that he is focused entirely on reconnecting with family members he has rarely seen during the campaign.
"I will figure out what my next step is," Mfume said. "I haven't thought about it."
But Crenson said candidates interested in being mayor will no doubt be wondering what Mfume will do.
"If they're not thinking about it today, they'll be thinking about it tomorrow," Crenson said.
Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.