Steele distances self from Bush on first day

Senate candidate stresses class divide


Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele began a solo stage of his political career yesterday by addressing a range of issues -- from the Iraq war to Supreme Court nominees -- offering opinions that suddenly carry weight now that he's a candidate for U.S. Senate. As he launched his campaign for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, Steele attempted to maintain the popularity of his partnership with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., while taking the first steps to distance himself from President Bush.

Steele, a Republican who was heavily recruited for the Senate race by the White House, said yesterday he is "reserving judgment" on the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, and wants the administration to begin a discussion on withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

Steele said he was not disturbed by Bush's poor poll numbers in Maryland. A recent independent survey by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies showed Bush with a 33 percent job approval rating among all voters, and 3 percent support among African-Americans.

"George Bush isn't running for Senate in Maryland. Michael Steele is," Steele said yesterday. "I'm hoping that the people of Maryland will look at me and what I try to do. Yes, the president has a numbers problem right now, but that's not Michael Steele's problem."

Steele has never been elected to office on his own. In 1998, he lost a Republican primary for state comptroller, and he was chairman of the Maryland Republican Party when Ehrlich chose him as his running mate in 2002. So as he embarked this week on a race for Senate, Steele worked to establish his own identity -- and played down the views he shares with a minority in the state, such as his opposition to abortion.

Asked yesterday why he did not talk in his kick-off speech about his strong opposition to abortion rights, Steele said he did not need to "mention the obvious" and would work to make sure the campaign was not centered on the abortion issue, which he said is settled in federal and state law.

As he did in his announcement speech Tuesday, Steele used a series of stops in Baltimore and Baltimore and Frederick counties to portray himself as an outsider to such Washington debates. He said too many politicians are out of touch with the needs of average citizens but that he would be able to bridge the divide because he has shared the experiences of the struggling middle class.

"I know what it's like to live paycheck to paycheck," Steele told entrepreneurs at Symone's, a Randallstown soul food cafe. "I know what it's like to start a small business and have it go belly-up. I know what it's like to turn a corner and run into another brick wall. I've walked in those shoes."

In the morning, Steele visited I Can't, We Can, a residential drug treatment program in Baltimore, and said he is committed to increasing adult education opportunities inside and outside prison to help ex-drug offenders.

He also challenged the business people with whom he met over lunch to give ex-offenders a chance so that they can someday "take off the blue jeans and T-shirt, and put on a suit and tie and talk about business." If they don't, and if leaders don't talk about the gap between the haves and have-nots, he said, society will continue to fall into a dangerous divide.

"Just think about what we saw in Louisiana," Steele said. "What we saw were the differences that empowerment can make. Those who were empowered got out. Those who didn't, died. No one admits this divide, this division that's grown into our culture and our community."

Democrats, however, have already begun trying to make the campaign about Steele's ties to the White House. They point to a fundraiser hosted by embattled presidential adviser Karl Rove last summer as an example.

Asked yesterday if he would return the estimated $75,000 collected at the Rove fundraiser, Steele said he would not.

Steele received an endorsement yesterday from the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3. The union also announced in June that it was endorsing Steele for Senate, months before he was in the race.

The union has supported Ehrlich, who attended yesterday's announcement at the lodge.

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