He has no campaign organization, virtually no campaign money and - given circumstances largely outside his control - doesn't even have a job, but many political experts believe that Kweisi Mfume is holding all the cards in Baltimore's mayoral race and that the mere possibility of his candidacy is making waves.
Mfume, who launched his public career 27 years ago as a member of Baltimore's City Council, is guarded when asked whether he will enter a race that - nine months out from the Sept. 11 primary election - is crowded with potential candidates, including three who have won citywide elections.
Even his detractors acknowledge that if the former congressman and past president of the NAACP decides to run, others will quietly slip out of the race. And while many insiders say they believe Mfume will not take the plunge, others are making moves now to hedge their bets, just in case.
"It's made every other prospect, whether it's Sheila Dixon or Joan Pratt or Catherine Pugh, put their best foot forward," Lenneal J. Henderson, a professor at the University of Baltimore's School of Public Affairs, said of the City Council president, city comptroller and newly elected West Baltimore state senator.
"They know if he enters the race, they're going to have to run a real tight game," he said.
So far, Dixon, Pratt and Del. Jill P. Carter, who represents Northwest Baltimore, are the most outspoken about their mayoral ambitions. Dixon and Pratt have won citywide elections with wide margins, and Carter's supporters have noted she received more votes in the Democratic primary than any other city delegate this year.
Other possible candidates include State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and City Council members Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and Kenneth N. Harris Sr.
Mfume has said it is premature to talk about whether he will run. He has consistently said he wants to give Dixon a chance to lead the city as she serves out the remainder of Martin O'Malley's term. Still, the buzz around his candidacy began even before he lost his U.S. Senate bid to Benjamin L. Cardin this year.
Statewide, Cardin received 257,545 votes, or nearly 44 percent. But in Baltimore, Mfume picked up 52,335 votes, or 64 percent. Cardin received 25,051 votes, or 31 percent.
In the 2003 mayoral primary, O'Malley received 58,178 votes, or 66 percent, compared with Andrey Bundley's 32 percent - the largest margin of victory in a Baltimore mayoral primary in 20 years. Bundley is rumored to be running, though his campaign has not returned calls seeking comment.
Asked last week whether he is considering a run for mayor, Mfume told WYPR-FM that he is not. Asked later whether he is interested in running, Mfume again said no. However, Mfume's words have been carefully chosen, and what Mfume has yet to do publicly is rule out a run. Though the distinction is slight, it is enough to keep the attention of the others in the race.
Mfume made news Thursday when he was tapped to serve on O'Malley's transition committee. The 42-member team will vet the administration's Cabinet and set the first draft of its policy agenda. Some have speculated that Mfume was selected for the position to keep him in the spotlight while he considers his future.
Julius Henson, a longtime Baltimore campaign strategist who owns the firm Politics Today, said Mfume would be a formidable candidate because he "is widely believed to be a favorite son with a lot of charisma." But Henson, a longtime ally and current strategist for Pratt, said Mfume could not simply walk away with the prize.
"I would not be afraid of an Mfume-Joan Pratt contest," he said.
Mfume was in the same position in 1999, the year O'Malley ascended from the council to claim the mayor's office. That year, many said Mfume's possible candidacy - though he repeatedly denied that he wanted the job - threatened support for his cousin, then-City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III.
Some Bell supporters said they would switch to Mfume if he decided to run. In mid-May, Mfume said he would not seek the post. Bell and Carl F. Stokes became the leading candidates, but both campaigns fizzled, and O'Malley swept in and won with a majority of votes.
Not everyone is concerned about Mfume's whims this year. Arthur Murphy, a partner at Democracy Group, an Annapolis-based political consulting firm, said he doesn't believe Mfume will run. And if, by chance, he's proven wrong, Murphy said that many candidates will simply bow out.
"If he makes up his mind [to run] then they will get out. Everybody who has any sense. Nobody I know likes to walk naked in front of a truck, and Kweisi is a big truck," Murphy said.
But until that happens, he said, "It's a dogfight."