Behind the Pack, Lichtman Feels the Heat

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 31, 2006; B02

On a recent Monday in Hyattsville, as bleary-eyed drivers made their morning commute, Allan Lichtman was already breaking into a sweat trying to get their attention.

In pinstriped pants, a white-and-blue striped shirt and red tie, he stood on a small sliver of concrete median at a hot and humid intersection. With every passing car, he waved his hands and peered into the windows with a smile, as if to say: C'mon, give me something -- a wave, a honk, anything.

This is what you have to do when you are going against the odds, he explained after two hours of arm-numbing waving. This is what you do when you are lesser known, out-moneyed and looking for a fighting chance.

This is how you run the race of an underdog.

For more than 30 years, Lichtman, 59, has studied politics -- as a history professor at American University, an analyst for CNN and an author. Known in some circles for his guides to predicting presidential elections, he has spent his career observing politics from the outside. Now, as one of 18 Democratic candidates for Maryland's open U.S. Senate seat, he is looking for a way in.

It's hard to ignore a man standing at Route 1 and East West Highway at 7 a.m., waving directly at you and pointing to a half-dozen volunteers -- each holding signs with his name -- at all four corners of the intersection.

About half of the drivers responded with some kind of acknowledgment -- a honk or wave back. Some ignored him. One trucker threw an empty bottle at him.

This was about par for the course.

For weeks, Lichtman has owned the intersections of Montgomery and Prince George's counties. It is part of the guerrilla, grass-roots style of his campaign. He has not come close to matching the millions in campaign funds of U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D). Neither does he have the name recognition of Cardin or former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume. He trails both in polls.

So he spends most days passing out fliers during rush hour in Metro stations, hand-waving at intersections and knocking on doors. The recent Hyattsville offensive was the starting point of a 16-hour day that would take him from Bethesda to Baltimore, with few breaks in between.

By 10:30 a.m., Lichtman and his campaign workers were back at their headquarters in an old Bethesda medical office. The staff is young: None -- including the senior staff -- is over 25.

"It's us kids who have really made this campaign happen," explained Marisa Dobson, 20, campaign spokeswoman and a recent graduate of St. Mary's College.

The campaign's youth has led to some coups. Lichtman's campaign has been mentioned in Business Week and on the Web sites of Time Magazine and CNN for its use of and -- the brainchild of 18-year-old volunteer coordinator Erin Lauer. It's the kind of national publicity a struggling campaign could never afford.

There are five paid staffers on the campaign and, on any given summer day, about 12 full-time volunteers. About half the campaign's $500,000 budget has come from a mortgage Lichtman took out on his Bethesda home.

On this day, the heat was unbearable. News reports would call it the fiercest summer heat to hit the Washington area in four years. Still, Lichtman and his staff decided to stick with their plan to canvass a Bethesda neighborhood.

As Lichtman -- still in pinstriped pants, shirt and tie -- knocked on doors, most residents seemed surprised to find a real-life candidate on their doorstep. He alternated between a couple of openers, highlighting his work as an expert witness in civil rights and voting rights cases and billing himself as the only lifetime teacher in the U.S. Senate if elected.

One resident, Bruce Babashan, 43, grilled him on corporate PAC money (Lichtman said he takes none), the Democratic Party (needs to take stronger, better defined stands on principles) and why he decided to run (to improve the country for his 14-year-old son).

As Lichtman walked to the next house, Babashan, a Republican, said Lichtman had won his respect and possibly his vote should he survive the primary. "I wish him well, but these days, it's about fundraising and corporate interests," he said. "It's not necessarily about whether he's a good candidate. You're not going to see a 'Mr. Smith' go to Washington."

Lichtman seemed to win over most residents he encountered. The problem, however, is one of sheer numbers: being able to make that connection with enough voters by September's primary. It was a point one man later brought up at the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro station, where Lichtman was greeting riders during the afternoon rush.

"I like you, but you know what the problem is," said David Rothwell, 59, commenting that Lichtman had little chance against Cardin and Mfume.

Later, as he walked to the parking lot, Rothwell explained his reasoning: "His chances are zero to slim because he's outside the party structure. Mfume and Cardin would have to self-destruct for him to win, and at this point, I'm voting for the one who has the best chance against [Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S.] Steele."

"That's the way to pick a sure-fire loser, not a winner," Lichtman responded. "Instead of voting for someone who will represent their values, they vote for someone they think will win. That's the way Democrats have been losing elections."

He repeated that sentiment that evening at a Baltimore forum for Senate candidates. After 12 grueling and sweaty hours in the field, Lichtman remained vigorous in front of the small crowd at the Baltimore Convention Center.

For weeks at such forums, he has tried to distinguish himself by attacking Cardin (who did not attend because of a congressional vote, his staff said) and taking strong, sometimes risky stands on issues. At the forum, Lichtman pledged to vote against any funding to continue the war in Iraq: "We can talk from now until the end of time about a timetable. But there's only one way to stop this war, and that is to stop funding the war."

On education, he proposed a two-year freeze on tuition rates at state universities and a program guaranteeing free tuition at community colleges for at least two years.

Many in the audience applauded but voiced doubts afterwards about whether he can overtake Cardin and Mfume.

And the forecast from the man who has spent much of his academic career developing a model of 13 keys to predict the outcome of presidential elections? There are too many variables and too little data for a surefire prediction.

"But if you want, I'll make a seat-of-the-pants guess," Lichtman added with a grin. "Lichtman reaches out to voters, appeals to the young and wins in an upset!"

© 2007 The Washington Post Company