The Democrats' Charisma Doctor

Stump speeches: Ben Cardin, left, Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
Stump speeches: Ben Cardin, left, Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. Barbara Mikulski. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2006

It's one thing for Ben Cardin to joke about his charisma deficit. "Who says I'm not flashy?" he quips in a campaign commercial when a supporter suggests: "Ben's not flashy, but he never stops."

It's quite another for him to invite Mr. Democratic Charisma himself onstage for a rally yesterday in the Cardin quest to become U.S. senator from Maryland.

Barack Obama didn't even have to open his mouth to have a crowd of a few hundred under a powerful spell in a grassy outdoor amphitheater at the University of Maryland in College Park. The junior senator from Illinois -- part Kenyan, part Kansan -- stood tall and youthful and bronze in a black suit and a baby-blue tie, his eyes half-closed, studying the audience with a kind of seductive lassitude. His arrival sparked an ovation, and he shot a quick amiable wink to the many pols and hopefuls crammed behind him on the stage, mute witnesses to the magic.

Beside Obama stood Cardin. Comparisons aren't polite, but the Democratic congressman from Maryland was asking for it: He looked older, shorter, pudgier and pinker.

Suffice it to say, when Cardin delivered his speech ahead of Obama -- the candidate was the warm-up act for the superstar -- a female voice from the crowd did not interrupt him with the ecstatic cry, "We want to meet you!" Obama won that populist bouquet. Squinting, pretending he didn't hear it, he continued his passionate call to "put on your marching shoes" to elect Cardin.

So the man lacks charisma, fine: He can borrow it. That may have been the point of this sunny morning tableau on the campaign trail. In his race against the current lieutenant governor, Republican Michael Steele -- who has been featuring a puppy in his campaign commercials -- Cardin contends he is running a campaign of substance over style. Cardin's style is anti-style, the recitation of issues, the requests for debate.

"We're bringing in charismatic popular leaders to show their support for Ben Cardin," says Oren Shur, the campaign's spokesman. "It's still our banner they're standing in front of. . . . People like Barack Obama transcend politics. They attract people and engage people into political events" they otherwise might ignore.

Obama, whose fans say he delivers substance with style, has been electrifying Democrats since his 2004 presidential convention keynote address, before he was even in the Senate. Cardin admires that speech so much he quoted a line in his own yesterday: "I believe that we have a righteous wind at our backs, and that we stand on the crossroads of history."

Sprinting Dems everywhere have been demanding an Obama jolt of energy, inspiration, star power. In the past two weeks, the senator has addressed campaign events in Kentucky, Iowa, West Virginia and Virginia, where he rallied supporters of Senate candidate Jim Webb against incumbent Republican George Allen, and he'll quicken his pace as Election Day approaches, said Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs. To many of the party faithful, the question is not if, but when, Obama himself will run for president.

The air in College Park was thick with Obama thrall.

"I've just always admired everything Mr. Obama says," said Kate Turner, a Maryland student who attended the rally on her 19th birthday just to hear him. "I'm excited about politics because he's involved."

Turner lost her sandal chasing Obama after he left the stage. She wanted a birthday picture with him.

"It's your birthday?" said the senator. "Where's your shoe, though?"

Cardin will get her vote, Turner says, but Obama will enjoy a far more personal honor. The snapshot of Obama and her will become her new Facebook picture.

More Obama giddiness:

"I decided to take time off from work to see my role model," said Joseph Eyong, 43, a native of Camaroon living in Silver Spring.

And this:

"Dude, I shook his hand."

That's Robert Hardin, 20, a Maryland junior from Fort Washington, to Alan Coleman, 20, a junior from Silver Spring. The night before the rally, one of their friends said he'd never heard of Obama. So they logged on to and had a viewing of the 2004 keynote speech.

"We were inspired to get up at 9 o'clock" for the rally, Coleman said. "If Obama wasn't here, I'm sure we wouldn't have half the turnout. I support all the politicians who are up there, but I don't know if I'd come out and hear them speak."

And what of that shortish white guy onstage with Barack Obama? After the speeches, Cardin was mobbed by a different crowd. Mostly reporters. But, his spokesman Shur affirmed, some people did seek Cardin's autograph on the back of campaign signs.

"If you talk about stentorian speaking," said Frank Bell, 80, of Kettering, ranking the rally speechifiers, "Obama's first, [Kweisi] Mfume's second, [retiring Sen. Paul] Sarbanes is third, and Ben's is somewhere down the line. . . . If he wins . . . it's going to be because he's standing for things people desperately need." (Bell didn't rank Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who also spoke.)

To win, Cardin is "going to have to do more," said Jennifer Lowery-Bell, 59, Frank's wife. "He can't be an Obama. We're not asking that." But Cardin will have to reach for some passion, she said, and he will have to keep pounding those issues, such as universal health care.

So, issues and passion: They matter. How they fit together is a politician's business. Sarbanes has been an issues guy, but a little bland. Obama meant it as a compliment when he said: "There aren't too many people who could replace Senator Sarbanes and not miss a beat. And yet somehow, Maryland, y'all found him." And the crowd cheered.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company