- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2005

Condoleezza Rice has quieted the chatter about whether she will or will not run for the White House against Hillary Clinton in 2008. At least for now, that is. The talk these days is about the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim majority and where Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is e-mailing like crazy trying to drum up money for next year’s Senate races.

The Democrats do have a lot to worry about.

The most interesting Senate race will likely be in Maryland, since Paul Sarbanes isn’t seeking a sixth term. He also served three terms in the House. Even old liberal war horses like Mr. Sarbanes know when it’s time to hit the pasture.

His pending departure has drawn the attention of some young and not-so-young contenders. The first out of the barn was baby boomer Kweisi Mfume, who, named Frizzell Gray by his mother, has been the sort of dashiki-wearing, anti-establishment buck who was born to raise a political raucous.

Mr. Gray, who grew up on the rough-and-tumble streets of Baltimore, changed his name to Mfume in the 1970s. He served several years on the Baltimore City Council and permanently donned the Capitol Hill look in 1986, when he hit, well, Capitol Hill. He sidestepped Congress in 1996 to run the NAACP, and resigned from that organization in November.

Now that he’s fully growed, as old-school Southerners would say, he wants to play with the Big Boys in the Senate. Mr. Mfume gave us an inkling of his interests in elected life during his resignation speech. “The future that is before all of us requires that we find new ways to change old habits … Only by conforming to the reality of today’s battlefield do we avoid being consumed by it … My decision to move on should be seen for what it is; another choice to seek another challenge, and another chance to make a difference.”

Mr. Mfume would make a huge difference in the Senate, where another black man with an Africa name, this one given the name Barack Obama by his mother and father, also hopes to make a difference. Indeed, an Mfume victory would make Maryland and American history, since the state never has had a black senator and the Senate never has had two black senators holding office at the same time.

But it is not Mr. Mfume’s race to win or lose. There are other Democrats pondering a run, namely Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County.

The politician that Mr. Mfume had best keep his eyes on, though, is Michael Steele, a Republican and the lieutenant governor in Maryland who also is black. Unlike Mr. Mfume, Mr. Steele has won statewide office and made Maryland history. Unlike Mr. Mfume, Mr. Steele neither talks the talk nor walks the walk of divisive racial politics. That’s simply not his style.

Unfortunately, Mr. Steele has not yet announced his plans. In a recent radio interview, Mr. Steele said he is weighing his wife’s thoughts, the effect his candidacy would have on the Ehrlich administration and the governor’s re-election bid, and whether it makes “sense for me.” Ehrlich for governor; Steele for Senate. What a dream ticket. Makes sense to a lot of Democrats and Republicans.

While no Republican Senate candidate has faired better than 41 percent at the polls in Maryland since 1980, a Steele candidacy would likely build on the white centrist bloc that elected the historic Ehrlich-Steele ticket in 2002. That includes the Democrats who voted Ehrlich-Steele v. Townsend-Larson.

The head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Sen. Elizabeth Dole, clearly envisions Mr. Steele winning the Senate race and is encouraging him in that direction. As NRSC spokesman Brian Nick told the Associated Press: “Absolutely, we hope he runs. If you talk in Republican circles around the country, people know who Michael Steele is. He’d be able to raise money on a national basis for this kind of race.”

But let’s not put the cart before the horse. Mr. Steele has to announce his candidacy; he has said that announcement is forthcoming. Until that moment, here’s hoping Michael Steele makes Kweisi Mfume eat his words and decides to make “another choice to seek another challenge, and another chance to make a difference.”

So stop the yakking about Condi v. Hillary in 2008. There’s another Senate seat to be had in 2006 thanks to an old war horse.

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