It was a love fest for Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin as nearly every elected Democrat in Howard County came out Tuesday to announce they were backing the veteran lawmaker in his bid to succeed U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D), who is retiring next year.

Cardin also drew support from the Rev. John L. Wright, a prominent leader among African Americans who heads one of the county's largest black churches, First Baptist Church of Guilford, and is a former president of the Maryland State Conference of Branches, NAACP.

Wright said he believes Cardin will focus on improving health care for seniors and providing a better education for children.

"He will enhance our health care, he will continue to develop our city of Baltimore to better the living standards, and he will raise the spirit of people to help themselves make a better life," Wright said in a written statement he distributed during the gathering at the Belmont Conference Center, a historic 18th-century estate near Elkridge owned by the Howard Community College Educational Foundation.

The endorsements are the latest from political leaders around Maryland as Cardin draws on his longtime connections to local elected officials, the Maryland General Assembly and Congress. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) is supporting Cardin. Last week, 17 Anne Arundel County lawmakers announced they were backing him as well. Cardin said he expects similar announcements soon in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

In Howard this week, Cardin drew kudos for his hard work and modesty. Local lawmakers said that is a potent combination that could help seal victory in next year's Democratic primary and general election.

Cardin, a former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, faces at least two potential Democratic rivals, including Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman from Baltimore and former head of the national NAACP who has announced his candidacy, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat who is exploring whether he should seek his party's nomination. On the Republican side, Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is contemplating the race.

"Cardin is unpretentious and well-known for hard work," Howard County Sheriff Charles M. Cave (D) said before the group of local officials gathered at Belmont. "I like him because he is who he is. You can get a lot done that way."

County Executive James N. Robey (D), who is barred by term limits from seeking a third term next year, said backing Cardin was an easy decision.

"He's a doer. . . . When I heard Ben was running, my choice was quick and very simple," Robey said.

Robey was the only politician who spoke formally to the gathering of backers, staff members and public officials. The others stood behind Cardin at the entrance to the Belmont manor house while he outlined his goals, including improving the environment, with particular attention to the Chesapeake Bay. He also said he would continue to push for universal health care coverage and to seek more money for education.

He criticized the Bush administration for requiring school systems to make substantial academic improvements and increase scores on standardized tests without increased funding.

Cardin also said he would continue his efforts to keep Social Security from becoming privatized.

The early endorsement from his political colleagues in Howard, including some who worked with him during his 20 years in the General Assembly, "speaks volumes," he said.

"These endorsements in Howard County give me energy to move forward to make sure we win next November," Cardin said.

Those supporting Cardin included County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County); council members David A. Rakes (D-East Columbia) and Ken Ulman (D-West Columbia); State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone; state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Baltimore County); Dels. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Howard), Steven J. DeBoy Sr. (D-Howard), James E. Malone Jr. (D-Baltimore County), Shane E. Pendergrass (D-Howard) and Neil F. Quinter (D-Howard); and former County Council member Paul Farragut.

Del. Frank S. Turner (D-Howard), who didn't attend the Tuesday morning gathering and whose name was not on a list of backers, said that afternoon that he had decided to support Cardin.

"I think ideally I would have preferred that this process take place a little later. I think Ben has done an excellent job as a congressman. He is very forthcoming. . . . He would be an excellent United States senator. I also believe others would be, too, Chris and Kweisi. I have a very good relationship with all three of them," he said.

Cardin, he said, "has always been a straight shooter with me. That's the thing I like about him the most."

Meanwhile, the race to succeed Cardin in the 3rd Congressional District has been heating up. Quinter, who is head of the Howard County delegation in Annapolis, has announced that he is seeking the nomination, along with Baltimore City Commissioner of Health Peter L. Beilenson. State Sen. Paula C. Hollinger (D-Baltimore County) also is said to be interested, in addition to Del. Jon S. Cardin (D-Baltimore County), who is Benjamin Cardin's nephew; Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore); Del. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County); and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens (D).

The 3rd District covers parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties. About 12 percent of the district lies in Howard. The remainder of Howard is situated in the 7th Congressional District, represented by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D).

U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin (D) told supporters near Elkridge that improving the environment is among his goals.Among those who endorsed Cardin on Tuesday were Howard County Executive James N. Robey (D), above, and the Rev. John L. Wright, left, in photo at right.