Dean Wants Md. Democrats Unified

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin announces plans to run for the Senate in a news conference at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin announces plans to run for the Senate in a news conference at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 18, 2005

A few hundred Maryland Democrats gathered last night in the Music Center at Strathmore to hear Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean exhort the party faithful to "take this country back for the people who built it."

Then Dean delivered a warning to those preparing for the 2006 election: "Make sure this is not a scorched-earth race. . . . We need to be on the same page the day after the primary, no matter who wins."

The rally in Bethesda was designed to portray Democrats as united heading into an election season in which they hope to both oust Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and hold onto the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D).

But the likelihood is that Democrats will spend 16 of the remaining 18 months before the November 2006 election skirmishing with one another, in potentially bruising -- and financially costly-- primary fights that Republicans might very well avoid.

Ehrlich is not expected to face any serious opposition in his bid to become the Republican gubernatorial nominee, leaving him free to focus on raising money for the general election. And many analysts say that if Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) gets into the Senate race, party leaders will work to clear the field for him as well.

The two leading Democratic candidates for governor, meanwhile, already have started throwing elbows on slot machine gambling and other issues. And some Democrats fear the party might have a difficult time rallying around its Senate candidate after a racially charged primary fight. Maryland's September primary -- among the nation's latest -- leaves only eight weeks to regroup.

"It's good for the Republicans," said Thomas F. Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland Baltimore County who is active in Democratic politics. "Ehrlich and Steele must be licking their chops."

Yesterday's appearance by Dean, a former presidential candidate, was his first in Maryland since taking the helm of the DNC. Other speakers included two Senate candidates, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and former NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume, both of Baltimore, as well as a third possible contender, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County.

One likely Democratic gubernatorial contender, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, was on hand, and another, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, skipped the event, attending a previously scheduled fundraiser.

Democratic leaders insist such jostling is good for the party. A gubernatorial primary in 2002, they suggest, might have exposed some of the weaknesses of then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as a candidate and allowed the party to field someone else against Ehrlich.

"I think competition is really good," said Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman. "It's good in business. It's good in sports. And it's good in politics."

Lierman said he is "encouraging every candidate to stick to the issues and . . . which Republican candidate we're running against. By and large, I think we're doing a good job of that."

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