Steele seems poised for bid

Announcement on Senate race expected in speech Tuesday


After months of courting by national Republican figures, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele appears poised to announce his candidacy for U.S. Senate on Tuesday.

Steele said in an e-mail to supporters that he will have "a very special announcement" Tuesday at Prince George's Community College, complete with live music and refreshments.

"I just have something to say on Tuesday," Steele said in an interview yesterday. "It's going to be an exciting time, and we're looking forward to a good conversation with the people of Maryland."

Republicans in the state and nationally have been excited for months at the prospect that the lieutenant governor, a lawyer and former seminarian from Largo, would give their party its best chance in decades to win a U.S. Senate seat in Maryland. Steele's coyness didn't dim their enthusiasm.

"Oh, I don't know, maybe he cured the common cold?" said Baltimore County Republican Party Chairman Chris Cavey. "I think he's probably announcing he's running for Senate. Everyone knows that's what's happening."

Steele, who turned 47 yesterday, formed an exploratory committee in June to begin raising money and laying the foundation for the race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. He was elected in 2002 on a ticket with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Steele is the first African-American elected to statewide office in Maryland and is one of the most prominent elected black Republicans in the country. National GOP luminaries including North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole and presidential adviser Karl Rove have urged Steele to enter the race.

The Steele announcement would be welcome news for the Republican Party amid criticism for the response to Hurricane Katrina, the indictment of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and the investigation of a White House leak of classified information. Faced with the difficult political climate for the GOP, other top potential candidates have opted out of Senate races.

Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Steele will be a major focus for national Republicans because he could help the party reach out to African-American voters, usually a solid Democratic constituency.

Last week's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that the president had a 2 percent approval rating among African-Americans, Duffy said, which means the party is likely to make an even greater push for Steele and the party's other two black statewide candidates, Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, who is running for governor, and Bishop Keith Butler, a Michigan minister running for the U.S. Senate.

"They either have to attract African-American votes or African-Americans have to say, `I'm going to skip this race' because they say, `While I don't want to vote for him, I can't really vote against him,'" Duffy said.

In an early indication that the attention to Steele's potential candidacy could lead to support, the lieutenant governor's exploratory committee posted strong fundraising numbers with the Federal Election Commission this week. Steele reported raising $416,742 in the three-month period that ended Sept. 30, and had $349,774 cash on hand. That's more than any of the Democrats who have declared for the race except for Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who raised about $900,000 in that time and has $2 million in the bank.

Steele's fundraising will take off after he officially announces, said Carol L. Hirschburg, a Republican consultant from Owings Mills.

"I know that many people are waiting for the announcement and will immediately give money as soon as he's an announced candidate," Hirschburg said. "Given that, he was still able to raise $400,000."

By running for Senate at the same time Ehrlich is seeking re-election, Steele will break up what has been a successful political partnership. Steele has helped the governor build credibility and allegiances in the state's African-American community. Blacks make up more than 27 percent of the state's population.

"My opinion concerning a United States Senate race would be a function of one factor: Could he win? Could a properly executed campaign result in Michael Steele becoming the next U.S. senator in Maryland?" Ehrlich said during a radio interview last weekend. "I've given you my opinion: I think he can win. And I've told Mike that, privately and publicly."

Steele would not have to resign as lieutenant governor to run for Senate, but Ehrlich would have to select a new running mate before filing official papers with the Maryland State Board of Elections next year.

Democrats in the Senate race include Cardin; former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume; forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren; American University history professor Allan Lichtman; and millionaire philanthropist and real estate investor Josh Rales.

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