GRANTSVILLE - As she quietly begins another re-election run, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski has a $1.2 million campaign account and no challenger anywhere in sight.

"How 'bout that?" she exclaims.

Election Day is still a year and a half off, but the biggest event in the campaign might have taken place already: Mikulski's decision to seek a history-making fifth term. Her move, yet to be formally announced, disappointed would-be successors in both parties who spent the past few years fanning rumors that she would retire.

"Right now, as you can see, I believe the best campaign is the one you don't have to have," the senator said in an interview during a recent two-day swing through Western Maryland. "I believe in what I call a deterrent strategy, which is to get out there and do your job, so that people continue to think you ought to be there, and then have the financial resources to be able to get your message out."

Mikulski raised $442,000 in the first three months of the year, tangible evidence of her intentions. More than $2 of every $5 came from political action committees, according to Federal Election Commission records.

The special-interest contributions reflect her place at the center of one of Washington's biggest fights in years: the overhaul of the nation's health care system. PACs representing insurance and pharmaceutical companies, podiatrists and chiropractors have donated to her re-election fund. Organized labor, defense contractors and Washington lobby firms gave.

Mikulski, 72, would become the longest-serving female senator in the nation's history if she won another term, and completing it would tie her with former colleague Paul S. Sarbanes for the record as Maryland's longest-tenured senator.

"We're looking ahead to 2010," she told supporters at a reception in Cumberland. "We're going to be very active and do all that we can" for the Democratic ticket.

Four decades ago, as a community activist, Mikulski got started in politics by blocking the extension of Interstate 83 through Fells Point and her Highlandtown neighborhood.

These days, she gives local officials step-by-step advice on securing federal dollars for road-building and other projects.

At a meeting held, aptly enough, in the town of Grantsville, she handed out new education funding from the federal stimulus package for the western end of the state. Discussing the economic wants of an area with close to double-digit unemployment, she told a largely Republican group of county commissioners how to lobby Washington for money that could turn a twisting rural highway into a north-south interstate.

When an official of the Greater Cumberland Committee quoted a study that said widening the road would lure thousands of permanent jobs to one of the most conservative parts of the state, the senator reacted with playful skepticism.

"Eight thousand jobs in this area would be breathtaking. It would be breathtaking," she said, laughing. "Not getting touchy, but, you know, there are 10,000 votes in Garrett County. And if I got 8,000 people jobs, man, it would kind of change the Democratic profile out here."

Opinion polls regularly show that Mikulski is Maryland's most popular political figure. She has never gotten less than 65 percent of the statewide vote in a re-election race, and Republicans appear unlikely to field a credible challenger.

GOP state Chairman Jim Pelura said he is sure his party will nominate someone but "it's premature to name names."

Don Murphy, a Republican consultant and former state legislator, said that Mikulski's "strength, clearly, is that she's viewed as the every-person. A regular person."

She has directed hundreds of millions in federal dollars to pet projects in the state over the years. Her ability to deliver, as a powerful member of the Senate panel that controls spending, has helped keep her in office. But earmarked spending is under assault from critics, led by President Barack Obama.

Mikulski's new message to Maryland officials: "Earmarks are very fragile." They yield relatively small amounts of money, if they get funded at all. A smarter way to go is to seek aid from existing federal grant programs, which Democrats in Washington are fattening up.

"I can't get contracts. You have to bid for them," she said in Cumberland. "We've put the money in the checkbook ... so you just apply for it."

She praises the former community organizer now living in the White House for his leadership, and she boasts about the pen he handed to her at a signing ceremony for an equal-pay law that she helped get through Congress.

"The very first bill signed by the first African-American president," she told the local Democrats. "I now have a national treasure."

Mikulski can't resist a pun, explaining that she took advantage of the Senate's two-week spring break to visit "all of the rural parts in my state, things that take a while to drive to, so that when I come I'm not doing drive-by schmoozing."

At the Luke Paper Co. on the North Branch of the Potomac, one of the last big employers in Maryland's piece of the Rust Belt, she met with company and labor officials, then toured the mill.

"Don't forget us up here," said Steve Weaver, 44, who operates the high-tech control room.

"That's exactly why we're here," the senator replied.

"You're going to get my vote, then," Weaver said.

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