Dozens of Southern Maryland's elected officials and business leaders lined up behind Democratic U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin on Friday in his campaign to succeed retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D) in 2006.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer assembled a long list of state representatives, county commissioners and mayors to demonstrate the region's support for his longtime colleague.

Among the elected Democrats endorsing Cardin were state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (Calvert), state Sens. Roy P. Dyson (St. Mary's) and Thomas M. Middleton (Charles), and the Democratic commissioners from all three Southern Maryland counties. Also endorsing Cardin was Democratic former state senator C. Bernard Fowler (Calvert).

Middleton praised Cardin for what he called the candidate's bipartisan spirit and familiarity with Maryland's varied regions -- a familiarity that arose, Middleton said, from Cardin's experience as speaker of the House of Delegates.

"That gives Ben a strong leg up above any other candidate," Middleton told the crowd of 50 people gathered in a conference room at the Southern Maryland Association of Realtors in Hughesville. "Cardin is the man for Southern Maryland and the man for the state of Maryland."

The support from so many elected officials and business leaders has fueled a perception that Cardin is the party establishment's pick for the nomination. Cardin has also received endorsements from Democratic elected officials in Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

On Friday, one of Cardin's rivals for the nomination, Kweisi Mfume, dismissed the importance of the endorsements. His campaign strategy in Southern Maryland and throughout the state, he said, is to connect with individual voters rather than worry about winning over the party's establishment.

"Endorsements come in their own course of time if they come at all, but individual voters and citizens are the people we should be reaching out to," said the former Maryland congressman and former NAACP president and chief executive officer. "Elected officials have but one vote, citizens have many."

The Democratic nominee may ultimately face Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican who has formed an exploratory committee to consider a run for the Senate.

Middleton said early endorsements are critical and can help with fundraising.

"The sooner that Ben can show real support, the better his chances to win," Middleton said.

Campaign finance reports show that Cardin has outpaced Mfume with $1.1 million to Mfume's $134,000.

Standing at a lectern displaying a campaign sign, Cardin emphasized his experience in Congress and called for making education a national priority.

"From Day One in the U.S. Senate, you're going to have a senator who understands how the legislative process works in Washington," he said.

Southern Maryland is not foreign territory to Cardin, who served on the board of trustees at St. Mary's College of Maryland for eight years. As Maryland's only member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee (which writes tax legislation), Cardin said he has looked out for the entire state.

On the drive from Washington to Hughesville, though, Cardin became more familiar with an issue many Southern Maryland residents know well: traffic on Routes 5 and 301.

Hoyer and Cardin rode together from the Capitol, and Hoyer joked that they were late because he wanted Cardin to "know firsthand what the problems are we're experiencing."

Cardin later said, "You're going to have a senator who is going to be very sensitive on the transportation needs."

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) announces his candidacy for the U.S. Senate at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. He has received endorsements from Democratic officials in Howard and Anne Arundel counties.