- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele said yesterday that his criticism of President Bush during an off-the-record talk with reporters was taken out of context and that the president is a friend who is welcome to campaign for him during his U.S. Senate run.

“I’m not trying to dis the president,” said Mr. Steele, a Republican. “I’m not trying to distance myself from the president. I’m trying to show those lines where … I have a different perspective.”

Mr. Steele made the comments on WBAL Radio to explain what he said Monday on Capitol Hill to nine national reporters, under an agreement that his statements would be off the record.

But Tuesday, the Steele campaign confirmed that Mr. Steele was the mystery candidate at the center of a column in The Washington Post that did not name him but quoted him as saying that his affiliation to the Republican Party was “an impediment” and a “scarlet letter.”

Mr. Steele also was quoted as saying that the war in Iraq “didn’t work,” and that the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina was “a monumental failure of government.”

White House press secretary Tony Snow said he understood that Mr. Steele’s comments had been “mischaracterized,” and that the president still supports his candidacy.

“The president, the first lady, the president’s father … the vice president, Karl Rove, this administration has been in Maryland campaigning for Michael Steele,” Mr. Snow said. “We want him to become the next U.S. senator.”

A National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) spokesman said Mr. Steele’s comments won’t stop the flow of money from national donors.

“Don’t think a political hit piece based on out-of-context quotes by a liberal critic from The Washington Post is going to hold too much sway over Republican donors,” said NRSC spokesman Dan Ronayne.

Mr. Steele said he also praised Mr. Bush during the lunch with the reporters, but only his critical comments were reported.

“I’m proud to be a Republican,” he said. Mr. Steele also said unemployment among blacks has decreased under the Bush administration and that homeownership has increased. He also called the president “my homeboy.”

“It’s a term of affection and respect for his leadership of our country in a difficult time, for his commitment to providing jobs and security, which he has done, and everyone in this country has benefited.” he said.

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank said he has a tape of the lunch and that “there were one or possibly two positive remarks about the president.”

“Probably half of the lunch was just not talking about the president at all,” he said. “His remarks about the president were significantly and largely negative.”

Mr. Steele said he thought it was important to “share an honest assessment of where we are today” and that he wasn’t “afraid of George Bush.”

“The president doesn’t want a sycophant in the United States Senate,” he said.

A spokesman for Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, one of the two leading Democratic candidates to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, said Mr. Steele’s comments were “politically calculated.”

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said Mr. Steele “is always going to speak his mind.”

“I love his streak of independence,” he said. “I value it.”

Mark Clack, spokesman for Kweisi Mfume, the other Democratic front-runner for the Senate seat, said Mr. Steele has “got himself in a little bit of a mess, which is characterized by his desire to have it both ways.”

“You can’t troll for money in the base of the Republican Party, the party of the president, then turn around and act like you’re trying to distance yourself,” he said.

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