Steele banking on Bush visit

But presidential tie seen by some as a liability


President Bush's approval ratings have hit an all-time low in Maryland, but Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a candidate for U.S. Senate, is betting that Bush still has cachet with the state's most dedicated Republican donors.

The president will headline his first fundraiser for Steele on Wednesday at M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Baltimore Ravens. Tickets to the lunch, for which business attire is required, range from $125 for general admission to $5,000 for a photo opportunity with Bush.

The event marks the second Steele fundraiser to feature a major administration official. Presidential adviser Karl Rove hosted a closed-door July event for him in Washington that netted about $75,000.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Saturday's Maryland section incorrectly described the profession of Lise Van Susteren, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Maryland. She is a forensic psychiatrist.
The Sun regrets the error.

Democrats say these events reflect Steele's allegiance to the administration and its conservative policies. But Steele loyalists say he is an independent thinker who needs to raise big money to challenge the Democrats, who are hoping to retain the seat that will be vacated by retiring U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

"We're looking to ensure that we have enough funding to take on what will be a major onslaught on the part of our opponents," said Leonardo Alcivar, Steele's communications director. "We've already seen a massive effort to energize our opposition by using a failed strategy of linking the lieutenant governor to the national party, which just frankly won't work."

Alcivar said Steele was not available to comment for this article.

Josh White, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, said it's time for Steele to start telling Maryland voters where he stands on the issues. Otherwise, White said, Steele has made his support clear - especially through his fundraising activities - for the president and the Republican Party's policies.

"Who he stands with tells a lot about where he stands on the issues," White said.

Association with Bush, who also is scheduled to give a speech Wednesday at the Naval Academy, might prove to be a mixed blessing for Steele. In Maryland, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1, the president is unpopular. According to a recent Sun poll of likely state voters, 33 percent are satisfied with Bush's job performance.

Melissa Deckman, an assistant professor of political science at Washington College in Chestertown, said appearances with the president won't help Steele shed his conservative image and appeal to more moderate voters, a group he needs to win over. But she's not sure that voters are keeping tabs on the candidate's appearances so early in the race.

"It wouldn't help him next November to be lumped together with Rove and [Vice President Dick] Cheney and Bush, not in a state like Maryland," Deckman said. "But I think it's going to raise a lot of money for him, and he needs to do that. It's going to be a very expensive campaign."

Carol L. Hirschburg, a Republican consultant who sits on the host committee for Steele's fundraiser, said she believes the timing is right for Bush's visit. Hirschburg said that at this point in the race voters are looking at how adept an individual is at raising money and whether he is a viable candidate. The president, she said, is a proven money raiser and can only help Steele energize his base.

"I don't think having a president come in and help you raise money is a sign that you're proving your undying support to him," Hirschburg said. "Michael Steele has the next year to tell people what he believes in, what his issues are, how he feels about national issues."

John Kane, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party and a member of the fundraiser's host committee, said no matter how people in Maryland feel about the president, Bush's support for Steele validates the lieutenant governor's candidacy.

"You certainly wouldn't see him coming into Maryland if it were a candidate that didn't have an opportunity to win," Kane said.

Steele is playing catch-up in the money game. U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a leading Democratic candidate for the Senate, has $1.8 million on hand. Steele has about $350,000 on hand, according to his most recent campaign filings.

Oren Shur, a spokesman for Cardin, said he doesn't believe Maryland voters will be swayed by the president's appearance.

"President Bush is coming to town to tell Marylanders why Michael Steele is his choice to advance the Bush administration's agenda in the U.S. Senate," Shur said.

Alcivar said there are many matters about which Steele differs with the White House and his party's leaders, but he offered just one example: Steele's interest in devising an exit strategy from Iraq, a position that's gaining ground in both parties.

Alvicar said the Democratic candidates for Senate - which also include former congressman Kweisi Mfume, American University professor Allan Lichtman and Lise Van Susteren, a forensic psychologist - are bound to accept help from their party leaders.

"How many fundraisers do you imagine Cardin or anyone else will have with national figures in the Democratic Party?" Alcivar said.

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