- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 21, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Republicans at a recent state convention were almost giddy with excitement about the possibility of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele becoming their candidate next year for the U.S. Senate.

Buttons proclaiming “I Like Mike. Senate” adorned the shirts, coats and blouses of many Republican activists. The convention earlier this month buzzed with talk of Mr. Steele’s speech the previous evening at the Montgomery County Lincoln Day dinner and how he electrified the crowd.

“He was magnificent,” said Joyce Terhes, the Republican national committeewoman from Maryland. “He couldn’t get out of the room. Everybody is extremely excited.”

Republicans have good reason to be excited, though Mr. Steele has yet to commit.

Not since Charles McCurdy Mathias Jr. was elected in 1980 has the party won a U.S. Senate seat in Maryland, with Democrats taking most of the races by overwhelming margins. But with Democrat Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes announcing he will not run next year for re-election, Republican leaders see an opening for a rare, statewide-electoral victory.

Prominent national Republican leaders are pressuring Mr. Steele to run. He has gotten entreaties from President Bush’s top political strategist, Karl Rove, from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and from Sen. Elizabeth Dole, North Carolina, on behalf of the party’s senatorial campaign committee. The story is the same at the state level.

“I certainly am urging Lt. Gov. Steele to run,” said John M. Kane, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party. “He would be a fresh choice, a fresh face for Maryland.”

Mr. Kane believes Mr. Steele will run and if so does not expect other prominent Republicans will challenge.

Mr. Steele was mostly unknown outside Republican Party circles until Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. asked him to join the party ticket for the 2002 election. Since then, Mr. Steele has gotten a lot of press exposure, including national attention as the party’s top elected black official.

Mr. Steele declined to be interviewed but said he is seriously considering the race. Pollsters and political analysts think he would be a strong candidate.

“The Republican Party at all levels would be well served to persuade Michael Steele that he ought to carry the Republican banner,” said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research. A poll taken last month by the company showed Mr. Steele running about even with three Democrats — U.S. Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, and former Rep. Kweisi Mfume.

Mr. Cardin and Mr. Mfume, former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, have announced they’re seeking the Democratic nomination, while Mr. Van Hollen is considering a bid.

Thomas Schaller, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who is active in the Democratic Party, said Republicans have good cause to be excited about having Mr. Steele as a candidate. However, Mr. Steele “doesn’t bring … a lot of experience” and must “make the case” that he merits being a senator, he said.

Mr. Schaller also said Mr. Steele is more conservative than Mr. Ehrlich on most social issues, and his chances of election would diminish if Democrats make that known. Mr. Steele, a devout Roman Catholic, is a strong opponent of abortion and stem-cell research. Mr. Ehrlich takes more moderate positions on both issues. But Mr. Steele, unlike the governor, opposes the death penalty.

If Mr. Steele enters the race, he will attract a lot of national attention and money to a state usually overlooked by both parties because of the Democrats’ dominance. State Republican leaders envision the party’s national stars, such as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and maybe even President Bush, coming to campaign.

Money would not be a problem, party leaders say. Republican National Committee member Louis M. Pope recently predicted Mr. Steele would have $15 million to $18 million to spend on the campaign.

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