Even though the general election campaign has begun in earnest, Democratic Senate candidate Kweisi Mfume said yesterday that he won't concede to U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin until all provisional and absentee votes are counted.
Despite Mfume's kind words for Cardin after Tuesday's primary election, he also declined yesterday to throw his firm support behind the Democratic congressman, adding that he had phoned the Republican Party's nominee, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, on Wednesday to congratulate him for winning his party's primary.
"I think Mike Steele's a great guy," Mfume said in an interview. "I wish them both well. My race is not going to be officially concluded until all the votes have been counted."
As he has throughout the campaign, Mfume called Cardin his "friend." But asked whether he will endorse Cardin should the votes not fall his way, Mfume demurred. "I'm going to have something to say about that," he said.
Mfume trails Cardin by about 20,000 votes, or 4 percent, according to the latest count from the Maryland State Board of Elections. There are 26,000 absentee ballots outstanding as well as an unspecified number of provisional ballots, according to Donna Duncan, director of the board's election management division.
The counting of provisional ballots isn't expected to begin until Monday, and the state's races won't be certified until Sept. 26.
"There are many, many ballots out there yet to be counted," she said. "So everything is unofficial results, and they continue to come in," Duncan said.
Cardin is moving forward with his campaign as the nominee. He appeared at a Democratic victory rally with the party's winners in the gubernatorial, attorney general and comptroller contests.
Steele's campaign issued a written statement yesterday criticizing Cardin for acting as the party's nominee.
"As much as Congressman Cardin and Democrat Party bosses would like to push Kweisi Mfume out of the race, the Maryland Board of Election still has yet to certify who won Tuesday's primary," said Doug Heye, communications director for Steele's campaign. "This attempt by Congressman Cardin to anoint himself the nominee is disrespectful to the Lieutenant Governor's friend, Kweisi Mfume, and more importantly, disrespectful to Maryland voters."
Several polls conducted this year show Steele would fare better against Mfume than Cardin.
Last night on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, Cardin said Steele had contacted him to wish him well after the primary. "He sent me a letter congratulating me on my victory and asking me to debate him," Cardin told Matthews. "I'm not sure what he's talking about."
Cardin said he expects he would have Mfume's backing in the general election.
"Kweisi Mfume is my friend, and we share the same vision of America's future," Cardin said. "Kweisi's going to be helping me in this campaign."
Oren Shur, a spokesman for Cardin's campaign, said Mfume "has offered Ben his support."
Shur said, "We look forward to working together to make sure the Democrats hold this seat."
Tammy Haddad, the executive producer of Hardball, said the show contacted Cardin and Steele yesterday morning about appearing together, but a spokesman for Steele said the lieutenant governor would be unavailable. Haddad said she hoped to arrange a joint appearance on a future show.
Heye said Steele would debate the official Democratic nominee when that person's victory is certified.
"Michael Steele has instructed his campaign to begin the process of scheduling debates after every vote has been counted - and a winner has been declared," he said.
Heye also said that letters from Steele were mailed to Cardin and Mfume after the primary. Steele's letter to Cardin, dated Sept. 13, acknowledges that he is the Democratic nominee.
"Congratulations on becoming a general election candidate for Maryland's United States Senate seat currently held by Senator Paul Sarbanes," Steele writes. "I have instructed my staff to reach out to your campaign to begin the process of scheduling debates. I am hopeful that by speaking frankly about the issues, we can help inform Maryland voters on how we would represent their interests in the United States Senate."
Sun reporters Laura Vozzella and Matthew Brown contributed to this article.