- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2005

COCKEYSVILLE, Md. — Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes’ surprise announcement that he will retire at the end of his fifth term has sent tremors through Maryland’s Democratic Party, as prominent politicians scramble to see if they have a shot at the plum job.

Yesterday, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger said he has set up an “exploratory committee” to examine his chances of winning the Democratic nomination in 2006.

Former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume became the first Democrat to announce officially his intention to run for Mr. Sarbanes’ seat on Monday, but a host of other politicians have said either they are thinking of running or haven’t ruled it out. Mr. Mfume is also a former five-term congressman.

Experts say the field likely will be crowded because Maryland leans so heavily Democratic in statewide elections that a win in the Democratic primary usually equates to a statewide win. Mr. Sarbanes, the longest-serving senator in Maryland history, easily won his last election in 2000, getting almost two-thirds of the vote to defeat his Republican challenger.

“Sarbanes made a career out of the seat. He spent half his life up there,” said James Gimpel, a government professor at the University of Maryland at College Park. “There’s no reason why the next Democrat to win it can’t do the same. It’s a very attractive prospect.”

John Kane, chairman of the state Republican Party, called the Democratic maneuvering “a feeding frenzy” among politicians “who are sick of their current jobs.”

“They are salivating at the opportunity to run against each other and try to keep the [Senate] seat in the Democratic column,” Mr. Kane said. “Republicans are playing it very smart and patient.”

Mr. Sarbanes, 72, serves alongside fellow Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski, who won a fourth term last year. The jockeying among politicians in both parties began hours after Mr. Sarbanes announced Friday that he would retire.

Two Democratic contenders for governor — Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan — have said they are concentrating on the governor’s race.

But another of Maryland’s Democratic U.S. congressmen, Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, has said he will form an exploratory panel. And Reps. Elijah E. Cummings and Benjamin L. Cardin haven’t publicly ruled out making bids.

Among the Republican possibilities, Mr. Kane said, are Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and Anne McCarthy, dean of the University of Baltimore’s business school.

Mr. Ruppersberger said he will travel the state during the next few months, talking to voters and gauging their response to his potential candidacy. He said he wanted to make sure he had a solid chance of winning before giving up the seat representing the 2nd Congressional District, which covers parts of Baltimore city, and Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties.

“It will be a tough decision to leave my job,” the two-term congressman said yesterday, surrounded by friends and family, with a Baltimore County fire station serving as a backdrop. “I love this job, and I’m not ready to say I’m giving up my congressional seat.”

But Mr. Ruppersberger also may have summed up why so many Democrats are eyeing Mr. Sarbanes’ job when he said, “It was a shock to many of us to learn that [Mr. Sarbanes] will not run. But with this comes a new opportunity. … It’s a chance that doesn’t come along too often, and it has to be looked at and considered carefully.”

Mr. Gimpel said the formation of exploratory committees marked the start of a waiting game among Democrats. “They’re waiting and watching to see who gets into the race,” he said. “They need to get some sense about who and what their competition looks like.”

Mr. Ruppersberger said he will start looking at polls, raising money and determining if a try for the Senate is worth the possibility of losing his current job. His congressional colleagues, and the Republican hopefuls, likely will be doing the same.

“Competition is healthy,” said Derek Walker, spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party, who insisted that the party would avoid negative attacks. “The Republicans are scared to death, because they see Democratic leaders across the board who are going to make it a terrible year for the Republican Party.”

Mr. Kane said Republicans planned to wait for “the blood sport” of the Democratic primary to end. “We’re going to sit back and pick up the pieces.”

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