Steele joins the race for U.S. Senate

Lieutenant governor ends months of speculation in speech that avoids specifics, promises change


LARGO -- With a rags-to-riches tale and a promise to empower people instead of government, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele announced yesterday that he is a candidate for the U.S. Senate.

The Republican ended months of speculation about his plans yesterday in a rally at Prince George's Community College with all the orchestrated pageantry of a national political convention. Hundreds of supporters crowded around a stage waving placards in the air and cheering as Steele, after three years at Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s side, took the stage alone.

"With freedom at stake around the world, with our country torn at home between extremes of left and right, with our families straining under deficits in take-home pay and deficits in ... home time, there is no doubt in my mind about what is right," Steele said.

"It is time to heal our divisions. It is time to empower people instead of empowering government. It is time to change the culture in our nation's capital, and that's why I'm certain it's time for me to run for the United States Senate," Steele said to cheers from the crowd.

The lieutenant governor is the first major Republican candidate to enter the race to succeed Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who has said he will not seek another term. Several Democrats, including Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and Kweisi Mfume, former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, have already begun campaigns for the seat.

Steele devoted much of his speech to his life story as the son of a grade-school dropout, Maebell Turner, who worked in a Laundromat to put him through parochial school. He went on to the Johns Hopkins University and the Georgetown University Law Center, and spent three years in a seminary preparing for the priesthood. As an adult, he became active in Republican politics and rose to chairman of the state party before Ehrlich tapped him to be his running mate in 2002. He is the first African-American to win statewide office in Maryland.

His supporters in the crowd, which included his mother, several relatives and the governor, said they believe voters will be drawn to Steele's up-by-the-bootstraps story, genial manner and oratorical skills. But the challenge he faces, they said, is to separate himself from the work he's done as a member of the Ehrlich administration and establish an identity as a national political figure.

The lieutenant governor, who avoided specifics in his speech, did not take questions and held no other public events yesterday, has not yet articulated his views on divisive national issues such as Social Security reform and judicial nominations.

In a national radio interview yesterday before his announcement, Steele did address the Iraq war.

On Fox News Radio's The Tony Snow Show, Steele supported the president's Iraq policies, saying he believes the vote on the country's proposed constitution is a sign that "democracy has spread her wings so much farther than anyone ever expected it would."

He added that the U.S. needs to develop a strategy to bring the troops home. "Let's get the security operations on the ground in place and make sure people can defend that liberty," Steele said. "For every Iraqi soldier that takes up arms on behalf of freedom in Iraq, that means one more soldier can come home, and I think that's where the president is heading."

Steele will also have to explain his views on divisive social issues, which he has largely avoided doing while a member of the Ehrlich administration. The lieutenant governor opposes abortion rights and the death penalty. Ehrlich, who holds the opposite views, said that Steele has made his opinions known in the administration's internal deliberations but that he will have to publicly take a stand on those issues and others.

"Michael is on his own," Ehrlich said.

Steele, a 47-year-old married father of two teenaged boys, is no stranger to national politics. Steele campaigned across the country for President Bush, is part of the national GOP outreach to African-Americans and has plied his wit several times on the HBO political show Real Time with Bill Maher. His biggest exposure came with a prime-time speaking slot at the 2004 Republican National Convention, where his performance was compared favorably with U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's keynote address at the Democratic convention.

That experience appeared to pay off yesterday as Steele stood tall behind the lectern, gazing past the teleprompter and into the crowd, and delivering a polished speech that touched on many of the same themes of individual responsibility and economic empowerment he used at the Republican convention. The auditorium was smaller, but this time it was his name, not the president's, on the signs being waved by the crowd.

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