- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2006

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele has rebounded from his election loss by returning to an active role in state Republican politics, positioning himself for a potential run for governor in four years.

“I’m just trying to make sure our party gets back on its feet and stands tall,” Mr. Steele told The Washington Times. “If we don’t do the groundwork now and pull ourselves up, 2010 won’t matter and 2008 won’t matter, either.”

Since his loss Nov. 7 in the U.S. Senate race, Mr. Steele has helped recruit and promote candidates for state party chairman and members of the central executive committee, who will be elected today at the state party convention in Annapolis.

Mr. Steele, who served as state party chairman from 2000 to 2002, said it was “too soon” to commit to a run for governor, but he did not rule out the possibility.

“I’ll always be prepared for opportunities,” he said.

He also said that after the re-election loss of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the state’s first Republican governor in more than 30 years, the party must rebuild the way it did after 1998. That year, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey narrowly lost a second gubernatorial election to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.

“We struck gold right out of the box,” Mr. Steele said of his 2002 win with Mr. Ehrlich. “I think we can do it again.”

Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris said he was “encouraged that [Mr. Steele] wants to have influence” in party elections.

“That means Michael Steele is here to stay with us as a political force in Maryland,” said Mr. Harris, Baltimore County Republican.

Carol L. Hirschburg, a Republican political consultant in Maryland, said Mr. Steele remains a “rallying point” for the party even after it suffered major setbacks in the election.

The nation’s anti-Republican mood helped restore the Democratic Party’s almost complete control of state government in Maryland, where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1.

Mrs. Hirschburg joined Mr. Harris and other party insiders who anticipate a 2010 gubernatorial run by Mr. Steele, who entered the Senate race as a rising star in the party and continues to attract national attention.

“It was always assumed … that he would run for governor,” Mrs. Hirschburg said.

Mr. Steele’s involvement in the party elections is a stark contrast to Mr. Ehrlich, who has assumed a low profile since his loss to Gov.-elect Martin O’Malley, a Democrat.

The governor “is busy governing and making his transition to private life,” said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell.

Despite the lieutenant governor’s influence, the race for party chairman is contested.

Mr. Steele has aggressively lobbied central committee members to elect as chairman Jim Pelura, a Davidsonville veterinarian who served as state chairman of President Bush’s 2004 campaign and as the Anne Arundel County chairman of Mr. Ehrlich’s 2006 campaign.

However, a nomination for party chairman also went to Annapolis businessman John White, a political newcomer who last month lost the race for the 3rd Congressional District seat by a large margin to Democrat John P. Sarbanes.

Candidates had to be nominated by at least three county chairmen before the 7:30 p.m. deadline yesterday.

Mr. Steele’s efforts helped establish Mr. Pelura as the frontrunner heading into the vote today by the party’s 238 central committee members.

Maryland Republican Party Chairman John M. Kane, who is stepping down after one four-year term, said Mr. Steele’s endorsement of Mr. Pelura is expected to “sway a lot of voters.”

Mr. Steele, who lost the U.S. Senate race to Sen.-elect Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat, was expected to land somewhere on the national stage.

He was briefly rumored to be the next RNC chairman before the post was offered to Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, a former member of Mr. Bush’s Cabinet.

Mr. Steele said he plans to stay involved in state and national politics, including supporting the party’s congressional and presidential candidates.

“I’m going to try to play at both levels,” he said. “I’m going to continue the message I struck a chord with over the last year.”

The lieutenant governor’s interest in the party elections has Maryland Republicans continuing to pin their hopes on him. Mr. Steele’s Senate run demonstrated his ability to appeal to swing voters and voters who traditionally back Democrats.

“That’s where the future of the Republican Party in Maryland lies,” Mr. Harris said.

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