- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2008

Four years ago, a charismatic black politician called a “rock star” by some moved a partisan crowd to its feet with rhetoric focused on the strengths of his political party - but it wasn’t Barack Obama.

In fact, then-Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele was considered the anti-Obama for the Republican Party. His keynote address at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City was seen as the party’s answer to the soaring remarks made roughly a month before at the Democratic convention by Mr. Obama, then an Illinois state senator and candidate for U.S. Senate.

But bring up the Steele-as-Obama antidote today, and Mr. Steele bristles, albeit politely.

The 49-year-old notes that he had been in office “long before Obama showed up” and any portrayal of him as “the answer” to the Illinois senator was a media fabrication.

“The reality of it is that because I wore our label, I was less relevant and less important to the political story, that those as we’ve seen have tried to write with Barack Obama,” Mr. Steele told The Washington Times. “So what? I don’t care. I’m doing my thing, I’m trying to build our party, I’m trying to strengthen our brand with the American people.”

Mr. Steele was originally scheduled to speak at this year’s convention Tuesday, but with Hurricane Gustav throwing the Republican gathering into disarray, the timing of all speeches was up in the air as of Sunday.

The two men’s political careers have since taken different trajectories in the public eye. Mr. Obama easily won his U.S. Senate bid and has garnered enormous amounts of attention as he prepared to accept the Democratic nomination for president last week.

Mr. Steele, meanwhile, lost his 2006 run for a Senate seat from Maryland - an election marred by accusations that supporters of Mr. Steele and then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich engaged in misleading campaign tactics that included releasing fliers falsely showing the two were endorsed by black Democrats in the state.

David Paulson, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party, said the tactics have “damaged” Mr. Steele’s reputation.

“That is not to say that in the right circumstance he could not find political relevance in a lesser role,” Mr. Paulson said. “But I don’t think again, given his own performance and his own actions, that what was done in 2006 will be long forgotten, and that doesn’t portend well for his future in Maryland.”

Mr. Steele serves as executive director of GOPAC, the political action committee that helped create the “Republican Revolution” of the mid-1990s.

While his efforts largely take place behind the scenes, Mr. Steele hopes to once again build momentum for his party with this year’s address.

In 2004, his speech focused on empowering Americans to create a “legacy of wealth,” a theme he is likely to echo in this week’s remarks with the country facing a difficult economy. Mr. Steele’s stepfather was a limousine driver, and his mother was a laundress.

“We want to give them a stake in the American dream; we want to give them a stake in their communities,” Mr. Steele said. “That means we don’t want to take more out of your pocket, we want to find creative ways to put more into your pocket.”

He said he also expects to focus on the difference between Mr. Obama’s message of change, and real reform - something he says Republicans have historically helped achieve and that Sen. John McCain, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, is well-suited to bring about.

“I think it’s going to be an opportunity to kind of remind ourselves … that we have a lot to talk about and a lot to share with the American people in terms of what a difference our leadership makes,” Mr. Steele said.

He said the country’s current climate stresses the need for him to deliver a “more powerful” and “stronger” message than he did in 2004.

He derided Mr. Obama’s plans for the presidency as a blueprint to create a “nanny state” with too much government involvement and said Republicans and Mr. McCain, instead, would like to see a greater environment for “free markets and entrepreneurism,” highlighted by limited government interference.

“It does make a difference that an African-American is a Democratic nominee, particularly one that has such thinkings as Barack does,” Mr. Steele said. “It offers up a very stark contrast [of] the leadership styles and the direction into which these two may want to take the nation.”

As for his future, Mr. Steele - a devout Catholic who once studied to become a priest - said he does hope to return to a life of “public service” and run for office again. He said he plans to evaluate his options closer to 2010.

“When the time is right and the opportunity presents itself, we’ll take a closer look and see what we have to offer the people of Maryland,” he said. “And if they like it and think it’s in their interest, then hopefully they’ll support me.”

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