The woman who helped introduced Kweisi Mfume at the Montgomery County retirement community asked how to pronounce his name. The audience gasped as the U.S. Senate candidate from Baltimore told of the five children he fathered out of wedlock.
But by the end of a 30-minute address last week -- a speech that encompassed his mother's death when he was 16, his drift into gang life and his eventual triumph as a congressman and NAACP leader -- half the crowd at Leisure World in Silver Spring rose in spontaneous ovation.
It was the kind of embrace that Mfume is counting on to lift his fortunes in next year's Senate race in Maryland. Four months after becoming the first candidate to leap in, Mfume has found himself in an uphill primary battle against not only a better-financed Democrat but conventional wisdom, as well.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore, who entered the race more than a month after Mfume, has trumpeted his early fundraising success and rolled out several dozen endorsements, including that of House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland.
Reports filed Friday showed that Cardin raised $1.1 million during the past three months compared with Mfume's $134,432. Meanwhile, many of the state's most prominent African American leaders whose support could bolster Mfume's campaign have held off on taking sides in a primary in which party officials expect about 40 percent of the electorate to be black.
The lack of money, particularly, could be crippling during a campaign in which spending for each candidate could top $10 million, analysts say.
Mfume took issue with such assumptions last week and suggested there was "a huge effort to sort of guide the process" in favor of Cardin by "the political pundits and the so-called experts."
"This campaign is not going to be won on political commentators' observations," he said after his Thursday night appearance at Leisure World. "It's going to be won by political outreach."
The stakes could extend beyond a disgruntled candidate. Mfume -- and to a greater degree, some of his supporters -- also have cautioned that Democrats risk losing black voters in the 2006 general election if party leaders are too quick to declare the primary over.
Republicans are expected to nominate Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R), who is black and has spent years trying to persuade African Americans to consider GOP candidates.
"We're getting somewhat concerned that we're seeing the same rubber-stamp group from the Democratic Party try to decide this," said Del. Obie Patterson (D-Prince George's), who said he is "leaning" toward supporting Mfume.
Mfume and his advisers acknowledge that he entered the race to succeed Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D) somewhat flat-footed. Seeking to appear decisive, Mfume announced his candidacy just days after Sarbanes's surprise retirement announcement in March.
It had been more than a decade since Mfume ran his last congressional race, and he had no staff or fundraising apparatus in place. He soon was put on the defensive by the release of allegations of favoritism during his tenure as NAACP president.
In more recent weeks, advisers said, Mfume has started to regain his footing, making frequent appearances before Democratic gatherings and community groups, most of which have not been advertised to the media and received little attention. He has deliberately focused more on meeting voters, the advisers said, than racking up endorsements and raising money.
"I read all this stuff about our opposition being the inevitable nominee, and it's just so early," said Dan Rupli, a Frederick lawyer and former congressional candidate who is part of an inner circle of Mfume advisers that includes Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's former presidential campaign manager.
"We're talking about a 14-month campaign that will take us through two Labor Days before people even get to vote," Rupli said, noting that other Democratic candidates still might enter the race and alter the dynamic. Among those considering are Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, as well as Montgomery County businessman Joshua Rales and forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren. Mfume's slow start in fundraising has troubled even some likely supporters, including Patterson, who recognize that television and radio advertising will be essential.
"If it doesn't pick up, it's going to make it difficult for him," Patterson said. "I know he's out there daily and nightly, but you can only hit so many places."
Rupli predicted fundraising would pick up, drawing in part on a national network from Mfume's NAACP tenure that he has not started to tap. And, Rupli said, he expects that such black leaders as Democratic Reps. Elijah E. Cummings and Albert R. Wynn eventually will come on board. A spokeswoman said last week that Cummings remains undecided, and Wynn said in an interview that he considers it too early to endorse.
"People are not making decisions just based on race," said Wynn, who represents most of Prince George's County. "We have to see what develops in terms of message."
Some Mfume endorsements, however, are definitely in the works.
Montgomery County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) was among those at Leisure World who streamed up to talk to Mfume after he finished fielding questions on stem cell research, the Middle East and other issues.
"You were just great," Leventhal told Mfume. "I'm going to endorse you."
Leventhal later said in an interview that he had been interested in Mfume and that seeing the response at Leisure World sealed the deal. "He had that room spellbound," Leventhal said.
Mfume told the crowd of about 125 senior citizens: "I'm not giving up on the American dream or the American possibility, because I'm an example of it. I've come tonight not for your votes but for you to get a chance to know me. . . . And after we've had this opportunity many times over in the next 14 months, I ask then that you look in your hearts . . . and that you consider me."
Certainly not everyone left the room ready to support Mfume. "He talks too much and very much in generalities," said Saul Hoch, a retiree who lives in the community.
But others, including Mab Cantril, who said she knew little about Mfume upon arrival, left wanting to host an event for him. "He speaks from life experiences," she said.
Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah (D-Prince George's) said that when Mfume showed up at a recent fundraiser for her, she decided to let him address the crowd of more than 350 for a few minutes. Something similar transpired, she said.
"We couldn't get him out of there," said Lawlah, who is backing Mfume. "People love him when they meet him."