Issues of party image could affect Steele's Senate race

His ties to embattled top Republicans might prove problematic


Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is expected to announce his candidacy for U.S. Senate today as the national Republican Party that recruited him to the race faces scandals involving several top leaders.

Later this week, a federal grand jury will decide whether presidential adviser Karl Rove and vice presidential Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby will be indicted for their involvement in the leak of the name of a CIA agent.

Steele, a Republican, has not been shy about his White House connections. Rove headlined a fundraiser for the lieutenant governor last summer. As President Bush's approval ratings sink and legal problems of his advisers mount, however, those associations could prove to be problematic.

"He's tied in with them because he's been really heavily recruited by people like Karl Rove," said Melissa Deckman, assistant professor of political science at Washington College in Chestertown.

If Rove is charged for his role in the identification of CIA operative Valerie Plame, Steele will face a dilemma. He could work to distance himself from the party leaders who have nurtured his career, or he could stay loyal and face the criticism he's bound to endure - from Democrats in particular. And in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, that's a gamble.

"You're known by the company you keep," said Terry Lierman, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party. "His record is very, very closely associated with President Bush, with Karl Rove, with Tom DeLay, with Sen. Bill Frist, and without exception, every one of those people is either under a very dark cloud or about to be indicted."

Dan Ronayne, press secretary for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, doesn't believe Steele will be affected by the problems dogging Republicans nationally.

"Anyone that knows Michael knows that Michael's his own person," Ronayne said. "And that's the reason the Democrats are so leery of his campaign."

Steele - who had $349,773 cash on hand, according to his most recent financial report - has collected thousands of dollars from powerful Republicans. Some of that money was raised during the Rove event.

Steele also has accepted donations from several conservative political action committees, including those run by U.S. Sens. John Thune of South Dakota, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and George Allen of Virginia; and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University, said the 2006 election is far enough away that the political landscape could change. There are too many factors to determine how other Republicans might be affected, she said.

"The broader question is a matter of the party label, and how tarnished does that label become for anybody running under it," Binder said.

Democrats in the race to succeed retiring incumbent Paul S. Sarbanes include U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, former NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume, forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren, American history professor Allan J. Lichtman, philanthropist Joshua Rales, and socialist A. Robert Kaufman. Third-party candidate Kevin Zeese also is running.

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