- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2006

BALTIMORE — President Bush hopped over to Baltimore yesterday to raise money for the Maryland Republican Party, telling a high-paying crowd of several hundred to help re-elect Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and also send Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele to the U.S. Senate, although the latter was conspicuously absent.

“In our line of work there’s a lot of big talkers, and sometimes you find a doer — somebody who knows how to set an agenda and lead people to accomplish that agenda,” Mr. Bush said. “Bob Ehrlich is a doer, he’s a great leader, and he needs to be re-elected governor of the state of Maryland.”

Mr. Bush stood on a stage in a ballroom at the BWI Marriott just feet away from Mr. Ehrlich, but the president also had brief kind words for Mr. Steele, the other major Republican statewide candidate on the ballot in November, even though Mr. Steele was not there.

“By the way, when you’re getting him in as governor, make sure you put Michael Steele into the United States Senate,” Mr. Bush said, in one of just two references to the Senate candidate in his speech.

Mr. Steele is one of the most senior black Republican officeholders in the nation and is one of the party’s high-profile candidates in November. He has not been shy about disagreeing with Mr. Bush publicly in recent weeks, saying in particular that Mr. Bush mishandled the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. Steele was in Las Vegas at another engagement yesterday, Republicans at yesterday’s Maryland event said. But they dismissed talk of a rift, saying the two have campaigned together before. In December, Mr. Bush drew about 600 guests and netted about $500,000 at a Steele fundraiser at the Baltimore Ravens’ M&T; Bank Stadium.

The president praised Mr. Ehrlich for being “an education governor” who fought for charter schools and accountability, said he worked to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, and controlled spending and increased jobs. He said Mr. Ehrlich also deserves to be re-elected because he blocked a huge tax increase that would have happened had a Democrat won in 2002.

“I tell you what would have happened — the legislature would have raised $7.5 billion in tax increases had you not had this man as the governor of the state of Maryland,” he said.

Mr. Ehrlich will face one of two strong Democratic challengers — Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan or Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley — in his bid for a second term.

“This is about a competitive two-party state,” Mr. Ehrlich said before introducing Mr. Bush.

Mr. Bush is stepping up his campaign schedule in the run-up to November, knowing that control of Congress — and therefore his ability to pursue his agenda in the last two years of his presidency — is on the line.

The Maryland Senate race could figure prominently in the battle for control of Congress. Democrats would need to net six seats to gain control of the upper chamber, and a defeat in a Democrat-held seat in Maryland could doom Democrats’ chances.

Mr. Steele has distanced himself from Mr. Bush in other ways. According to columnist Robert Novak earlier this week, Mr. Steele “could not find anything favorable to say about the president” during an event at Prince George’s Community College. Mr. Novak also said that Mr. Steele “was even tougher on Bush in talking to me: ‘In the eyes of blacks, [Hurricane] Katrina was a 9/11 event. You didn’t fly over 9/11. You got on the ground in the rubble. You should have been on the ground for Katrina.’ ”

Some of the Republicans in attendance last night said they were surprised by Mr. Steele’s absence, but said there was no rift and he would benefit anyway from the event, which raised funds for Maryland Victory 2006, a get-out-the-vote operation that specifically targets state legislative races and Mr. Ehrlich’s campaign, but which will benefit Mr. Steele as well.

Organizers wouldn’t say how much tickets were or how much they took in, though they said it was the most successful event ever for the state party. Early reports had the event netting around $1 million. Couples who attended the VIP reception beforehand and had a photo taken with the president paid $10,000 a couple.

Several hundred people attended the main speaking event and heard Mr. Bush refer repeatedly to Mr. Ehrlich’s record in specific detail.

The money raised goes to Maryland Victory 2006, a get-out-the-vote operation that specifically targets state legislative races and Mr. Ehrlich’s campaign but which will benefit Mr. Steele as well.

Mr. Bush is still a giant draw for Republican candidates, and the White House says he is getting more requests than he can fulfill, but some incumbent lawmakers are choosing not to attend events with him.

Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican, skipped a similar event last week for U.S. House Republicans from the Philadelphia area. Mr. Weldon told the Wall Street Journal that Mr. Bush is doing poorly in his state and said, “I’ve got to win this by myself.”

For yesterday’s event, Mr. Bush showed he had more than a passing familiarity with Mr. Ehrlich’s campaign and accomplishments during his first term. The president touted the governor’s record on the Chesapeake Bay and charter schools, and spoke in depth about Mr. Ehrlich’s performance on tax cuts and the state budget.

He also said Mr. Ehrlich showed he can manage finances by cutting his own executive office by 7 percent.

Mr. Bush continued to sound themes popular with conservatives such as his pledge to veto the emergency spending bill for the war on terror and hurricane relief if Congress spends more than the president’s target.

But Mr. Bush didn’t mention another hot-button issue — immigration, which divides his party deeply.

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