Running in shadow of Republican woes

October 30, 2005|By C. FRASER SMITH

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele stepped up last week as the next new political thing in Maryland, a black Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate with an outside chance to win.

But his announcement timing - or his luck - could not have been worse.

He is the candidate of the GOP's brain trust in Washington, but that's not a plus for him now: President Bush's low approval rating in Maryland and the nation offered an ominous backdrop for any Republican candidate.

The embroidery included the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, the 2,000th U.S. combat death in Iraq and the withdrawal of Harriet Miers as Mr. Bush's nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The brand new candidate spoke as if the president's troubles did not affect him.

"George Bush is not running in Maryland," the lieutenant governor said. "Michael Steele is running. The president has numbers problems now, but that's not Michael Steele's problem."

Oh, but they are his problems.

He comes before Marylanders as the hand-picked choice of Mr. Bush's campaign wizards, including one of those who is still under investigation in connection with the CIA leak scandal, the president's chief political strategist, Karl Rove.

A candidate with no legislative experience and no record of independent electoral success, the glow of Washington was to have illuminated his candidacy. For the moment, at least, that advantage has been lost.

He has polish and personal warmth that will come through on television. And he may have been sufficiently schooled in the issues to survive a campaign. He's been competitive in the early polls. And everyone assumes he'll have plenty of money.

But there is a surreal dimension to all of this. Only at a time when a party's national disaster relief director and its Supreme Court nominee have had "experience issues" could a candidate such as Mr. Steele be taken seriously. In a sense, he is an artifact of a time when those concerns were obscured by better news.

Mr. Steele must run in a state sometimes referred to as the People's Republic of Maryland. A poll last week suggests there has been no dramatic change in that left-of-center profile: Only 33 percent of Marylanders approved of Mr. Bush's job performance - well below the president's standing nationwide.

Thus, Mr. Steele begins his race by running against Washington. It's very awkward because Washington has seldom been such a Republican town. The White House and the two houses of Congress are under GOP control. Maybe you noticed.

It's not a new thing, running against Washington. The echo of old campaign saws is deafening: Government is not the answer to the problem. Government is the problem. Washington is full of pointy-headed bureaucrats who can't even park a bicycle straight.

Mr. Steele said he would run as a spokesman for families trying to pay the mortgage, worrying about high tuition and angry about high gas prices. Perhaps as the long campaign unfolds, he will lay out solutions to these problems - unsolved and, in some cases, exacerbated by his own party's leadership in Maryland and Washington.

He promised to be a calming influence in the capital city.

"We labelize everybody on every subject," he said, begging pardon for an invented word. "There's no conversation anymore." People should repair to the words of his mother, he said: "Shut up and listen."

At a news conference Thursday, he was asked to say what he thinks about the war in Iraq. He showed some agility here: The president, he said, has failed to offer a clear idea of when the troops would come home, but he thinks bringing them home now would be a mistake.

He was asked also about Ms. Miers. The lieutenant governor prudently deferred judgment. Her withdrawal a day later saved him from any further comment. Could he ever be critical of someone who has no experience for an immensely important job?

He offers himself as a "bridge of Steele." The image is clear, but does it work? A bridge to where? To the GOP Washington of today? Mr. Steele can run against government, but he's stuck with his party's record.

Election Day is more than a year away. Surely he will have better weeks.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail address is FSmith@WYPR.org.

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