Sunday, June 4, 2006

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele says his absence from a fundraising event with President Bush last week was not to distance his U.S. Senate campaign from the president’s sinking poll numbers.

“That’s a lot of noise,” Mr. Steele said in an interview with The Washington Times. “I am very excited and very honored to have the support of my party leadership, to have the support of the president for my efforts to get to the United States Senate.”

And, he said, he is not afraid to “look Marylanders in the eye” and say so.

Mr. Steele said he was in Las Vegas for an event scheduled five months ago when Mr. Bush visited the Baltimore-Washington International Airport Marriott on Wednesday to help raise about $1 million for the Maryland Republican Party.

The Las Vegas event, to raise money for several Republican candidates for Senate, was held by Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican. Mr. Steele left Maryland on Tuesday and returned Thursday, a campaign staffer said yesterday.

The event in Baltimore, where Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. traded compliments with Mr. Bush, was a fundraiser to help re-elect Mr. Ehrlich, send Mr. Steele to the Senate and benefit other Republican candidates.

Mr. Steele bristled when asked by The Times how closely he is aligned with the president.

“What do you mean, ‘How closely aligned am I?’ ” Mr. Steele asked. “How closely aligned are the Democrats in the Senate or the Republicans in the Senate? … I consider the president a friend. I appreciate his support. And if that is being aligned with the president, then count me guilty.”

Mr. Steele is the highest-ranking elected black Republican in the country. He was drafted by the party’s national leaders for the race to replace U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a veteran Maryland Democrat who is retiring. Retaining the seat is pivotal to Democrats’ plan to gain the six seats needed take control of the Senate.

Democrats hoping to alienate Mr. Steele from black voters in Maryland have linked him with Mr. Bush, whose job-approval rating is about 5 percent among the state’s black voters and about 30 percent overall in the state, recent polls show.

Mr. Steele dismissed the reverse-coattails strategy.

“I cannot run my race on what the Democrats say,” he said in the brief interview Friday at the University of Maryland College Park, after delivering a commencement address to graduating seniors from Crossland High School in Prince George’s County.

“The Democrats have been coming after me since last year, long before I even decided I was going to do the race. So it must be something about what I’m saying, about my message of empowerment, my message of turning hope into action, my message about legacy wealth that is resonating in a [black] community that has been forgotten by a lot of that Democratic leadership.”

The lieutenant governor pointed out the lack of support among Democratic leaders in Maryland for Senate candidate Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“I’m sure that Kweisi would appreciate the support of his party,” Mr. Steele said.

Mr. Mfume has publicly criticized Democratic “bosses” for turning off black voters by heaping support on the Senate bid of his main opponent, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat who is white.

Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 in Maryland. Blacks account for about 40 percent of the state’s registered Democrats and have been the party’s most loyal constituency.

Mr. Steele has distinguished himself from Mr. Bush on the campaign trail. He has criticized the president’s education policies, including cuts in financial aid for low-income college students, and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. Steele told The Times that he also backs Mr. Bush on several issues, including Department of Housing and Urban Development programs to help lower-income families buy homes.

“What they have done at HUD … that’s good stuff,” he said. “We have tried to model after that here in Maryland, and we have had success with that.”

Mr. Steele said he does not always see eye to eye with the president, but like family members, they can argue and still get along at a party.

“The reality of it is: Friends agree [and] friends disagree,” he said. “Where I agree with him, I say, ‘Yo, Mr. President. I’ve got your back.’ Where I disagree with him, I’m like, ‘Yo, hold up. Let’s talk about this.’ ”

Mr. Steele said he would not let public opinion polls on the president’s performance dictate how he campaigns.

“I’m looking Marylanders in the eye and saying, ‘Judge me on what I’ve done, what I said I was going to do and what I accomplished. And know that when I get to Washington, you’re coming with me,’” Mr. Steele said. “If people like that [and] they want to be a part of that, if they want to feel that vibe — come on. If they want to sit back and throw stones, have fun, but I’m not gong to focus on that.

“I’m not going to try to account [for] every movement or failure to move by the White House or the president or anyone else. They are not running for the United States Senate. I am. I have to look the voters in the eye.”

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