Wednesday, September 1, 2004

NEW YORK — Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele last night brought the crowd to its feet and prompted state leaders to say “Barack who?” with his prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention.

Mr. Steele, one of the highest ranking black elected officials in the nation, highlighted the problems facing America and pledged that President Bush can solve those problems.

“The promise of America is the promise of endless possibilities,” Mr. Steele said, sparking cheers of “Michael, Michael” from his delegation.

“But while the promise of America is real, the challenges we face to secure that promise for every American are no less real. We must continue to be vigilant in our fight against the blight of poverty, poor education and lost opportunity.

“What truly defines the civil rights challenge today isn’t whether you can get a seat at the lunch counter. It’s whether you can own that lunch counter in order to create legacy wealth for your children,” he said.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said he was proud of Mr. Steele and the boost his speech gives to the state, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1.

“It was just terrific,” Mr. Ehrlich said after the speech. “Mike is a source of great pride. This is a big deal.”

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have said Mr. Steele was given a speaking slot to be the answer to Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate who delivered a rousing speech during the Democratic National Convention in July.

Mr. Steele last night said Mr. Obama stole his fire, saying in prepared remarks, “I had planned to give a moving defense of the conservative principles of the Republican Party tonight. But there was only one problem: Barack Obama gave it last month at the Democratic convention.”

Maryland Republican Party Chairman John M. Kane summed up his reaction to the speech: “The bottom line is, Barack who?”

The Maryland delegation has been calling Mr. Steele a “rock star” for weeks, and delegates last night were nothing short of ecstatic about his national performance.

“He spoke from the heart,” said delegate Walter Hayes of Baltimore County. “He really personalizes and helps the average person understand.”

Mr. Steele wrote his own speech, but worked with a White House speechwriter and added some items at the request of the Republican National Committee (RNC). He touched on his own upbringing and explained why he is a Republican.

“I am proof that the blessings of liberty are within reach of every American,” Mr. Steele said. He said his mother was the “daughter of sharecroppers” who had to quit school in the fifth grade to work a farm.

Mr. Steele is a former chairman of the state Republican Party. He has served on the executive panel of the RNC, the National Commission on Federal Election Reform and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Election Reform.

Mr. Steele is scheduled to host a reception at the 40/40 Club tonight. The club is owned by rapper Jay-Z, and there are rumors that he and fellow rapper P. Diddy will attend Mr. Steele’s event.

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