Maryland Democrat Kweisi Mfume is making a play for the antiwar vote in his bid for the U.S. Senate with a fundraising solicitation this week that calls for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and with a major speech on the issue planned for next month.
In an e-mail solicitation, Mfume, a former congressman and NAACP leader, called the fighting in Iraq "a war without justification and apparently without end" and compared it to the Vietnam War. "It's time to get out," Mfume wrote, urging a timeframe for withdrawal.
In an interview, he said that by highlighting his views on Iraq, he is trying to draw the first in a series of contrasts with Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, another candidate for the Democratic nomination. The Baltimore area lawmaker has raised far more money than Mfume and racked up more endorsements in the race to succeed Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D), who is not seeking reelection.
Cardin voted against the 2002 resolution authorizing the war but has since voted for its continued funding and has stopped short of calling for a pullout. He contends that advertising a timeline for withdrawal would put troops in danger.
"I can understand what Kweisi's doing, but I don't think there's much of a distinction here," Cardin said. "I voted against the war. . . . I have spoken out consistently that the president has mismanaged this war. We shouldn't have been there, and I've said that since day one."
Mfume argued that their differences are significant, however.
"Ben Cardin is a friend of mine, but on this central issue of the war in Iraq, we disagree," he said. "I think it's time to be talking about an exit strategy."
Joe Trippi, a political consultant advising Mfume, argued that there is also a contrast in emphasis.
Iraq is the featured issue on Mfume's campaign Web site. Cardin's Web site presents his views on eight issues, including homeland security. But it makes no mention of the Iraq war.
Mfume's push on Iraq comes at a time of growing criticism of the Bush administration from members of both major parties. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) recently called on President Bush to bring the troops home by the end of next year. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) is among those who have compared the situation to Vietnam.
Thomas F. Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said Mfume appears to be trying to capitalize on the public mood to attract white liberal voters in particular. Mfume starts with a political base of black voters in Baltimore, the area he represented in Congress, a base he needs to broaden to win.
Mfume's emphasis on the war is also reminiscent of the 2004 presidential candidacy of Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who rode antiwar sentiment among primary voters to become the Democratic front-runner for a long stretch. Trippi was Dean's campaign manager for much of that period.
Mfume said that his opposition to the war is deep-rooted and that his views probably will be the centerpiece of a Sept. 12 speech reintroducing himself as a Senate candidate one year before the primary.
Cardin predicted that the war would be a much larger issue in the general election. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who has formed an exploratory committee for the Senate race, is widely expected to be the Republican nominee.
A spokesman declined to comment on Steele's views on Iraq. "The lieutenant governor is focused on his official duties and making a decision about whether or not this race makes sense for him and his family," Dan Ronayne said.
Besides Mfume and Cardin, community activist A. Robert Kaufman of Baltimore is a candidate for the Democratic nomination. Several other Democrats are considering entering the race as early as next week.