- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 28, 2005

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is considered the Republican Party’s best hope for capturing the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Paul S. Sarbanes — and he also is a coveted running mate for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

But Mr. Steele can’t run for both jobs.

The choice may be a personal crossroad for Mr. Steele, 46. And his decision could present a problem for the state’s Republican Party, which has struggled for relevance for more than 30 years and has few viable candidates now that two statewide offices are within reach, party insiders and political pundits say.

Party officials privately concede that they will be in a bind to field a contender for whichever race Mr. Steele forgoes, but they remain optimistic a strong candidate will emerge.

“The Republican bench is just very thin,” said Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “[But] it is far easier for them to fill the lieutenant governor spot than the Senate candidate spot.”

Mr. Schaller noted that Mr. Steele, a former state Republican Party chairman who had never run for office, was a virtual unknown when Mr. Ehrlich tapped him as his running mate. “Whoever Ehrlich picks becomes a made man in state politics, just like it gave Steele a statewide profile and a national profile because he’s black,” he said.

Mr. Steele, the first black elected to statewide office in Maryland, has enjoyed a dramatic rise to star status in the party.

Last year, he was awarded a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention. This month, Mr. Steele — as a member of the U.S. delegation selected by President Bush — attended the installation ceremony for Pope Benedict XVI in Vatican City. The inclusion of Mr. Steele, who is Catholic, underscores the party’s ambitions for him.

“We are very hopeful that he runs [for Senate],” said Brian Nick, a spokesman for the Republican National Senatorial Committee. “It is only good for the Republicans … giving Maryland two top-tier races that will attract national attention.”

The Senate race would be a historic matchup if Mr. Steele faced Democratic candidate Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who has announced his candidacy. If elected, either man would be Maryland’s first black U.S. senator.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore on Tuesday announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for Mr. Sarbanes’ seat.

A. Robert Kaufman, a civic activist who has made several unsuccessful runs for office, also is a candidate for the nomination.

Other Democrats such as Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County also are considering a run.

If Mr. Steele does not run, the alternative Senate candidate most frequently mentioned in Republican circles is state Sen. E.J. Pipkin.

The Eastern Shore Republican spent a large chunk of his personal Wall Street fortune last year in a failed challenge to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat. He won 33.7 percent of the vote to Miss Mikulski’s 64.8 percent.

“There isn’t any candidate [besides Mr. Steele] with statewide name recognition, but that doesn’t mean someone won’t get out there and build it,” Mr. Pipkin said last week. “But it does take time and it does take money.”

Mr. Pipkin said he was seriously considering entering the race but was waiting for Mr. Steele to make his move. “The situation is very fluid, and it is changing daily,” Mr. Pipkin said.

Some less prominent Republicans named as potential candidates for both Senate and lieutenant governor include Harford County Executive James M. Harkins and Anne M. McCarthy, dean of the University of Baltimore’s Robert G. Merrick School of Business.

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