President to visit, with eye on future

Bush hopes to gain lasting GOP majority


WASHINGTON -- President Bush's visit to Baltimore this week on his first Maryland swing of the 2006 campaign season is just one piece of a broader push to make Republican inroads in traditionally Democratic strongholds across the country, analysts and party strategists say.

Building a lasting Republican majority has long been a goal of Bush and his top advisers, including Karl Rove and Baltimore-born national party chairman Ken Mehlman. Bush's visit tomorrow underscores the state's importance as one of the places where he is determined to see his party compete, starting with next year's elections.

Bush won't be coming for his own benefit, Republican officials say. He's looking to bolster Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is running for re-election, and help Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele win a Senate seat that is up for grabs with the retirement of five-term Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

Bush's stop at a $125-a-plate fundraising luncheon at M&T Bank Stadium - attendees who contribute $5,000 get a photograph with Bush - will drum up early campaign cash for Steele.

Republican victories in Maryland and other Democratic strongholds would help Bush achieve an important part of his hoped-for legacy. It is a goal that has remained a top priority even as other elements of his agenda - such as adding private accounts to Social Security and quelling the violence in Iraq - have languished, dragging his popularity ratings to all-time lows.

Maryland, a convenient helicopter ride from the White House, appeals to Bush as a laboratory for a strategy he and top advisers have pursued since he took office - expanding party strength by chipping away at Democrats' long-standing advantage with key voting blocs, including black voters.

Marylanders are "going to vote the person, not the party," Mehlman said in an interview. With Ehrlich's election in 2002, voters showed that they are "sophisticated enough to do that."

"Monopolies offer bad services at high prices, and I think that the voters in 2002 said, `We want real choices. We don't want a monopoly anymore,'" Mehlman added.

`All about the money'

Bush's visit to Baltimore, his first fundraising stop in the city since December 2003, is timed to give Steele an infusion of money at an important moment. The Senate race figures to be hotly contested and the most expensive in state history because it is for an "open seat" - one in which the incumbent is not competing.

Top Republicans worked hard to persuade Steele to enter the fray - Rove helped him raise $75,000 at a reception here in July - and a parade of prominent officials can be expected to come through Maryland in coming months to lend support.

"At this stage of the cycle, it's all about the money. This is all about raising cash and large amounts of it," said Steven E. Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. "What this tells you about Maryland is, it is one of the leading targets of opportunity for Republicans in the '06 election."

Bush is stepping up his fundraising schedule in other states that Republicans consider important, with an event last night in Phoenix for Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona and an appearance next week for Rep. Mark Kennedy, who is running for an open seat in Minnesota.

"Open Senate seats don't grow on trees. There hasn't been one [in Maryland] for 20 years. It may be a long time until there's another one," said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the Cook Political Report. "It's very hard to just leave it on the table."

Key GOP goals

Bush's visit to Maryland begins with a speech on Iraq at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, in which he is expected to answer mounting calls to bring home U.S. troops with new details about the progress made in readying Iraqi forces to secure the country.

It also gives the president a chance to showcase his support for Ehrlich, a Bush loyalist who is running for re-election. In June, first lady Laura Bush helped raise $250,000 for Ehrlich's campaign at a reception in Bethesda.

The state might be most important, though, for what it could symbolize for Bush, who has been working to portray his party as one with broad appeal beyond that to its core conservative supporters. Bush's inroads with Hispanic voters helped secure his narrow victory last year over Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Mehlman has been traveling the country, speaking to African-Americans and other gatherings of minority voters, urging them to consider supporting Republicans.

Steele is "not your typical Republican. He's got a different background, he's done different things in his life. He has the potential to build bridges, bring people together," Mehlman said. "The fact that Michael Steele is the first ever statewide African-American to run makes me very happy and proud as a Marylander."

The message is aimed as much at attracting mainstream voters of all backgrounds as it is at minorities, strategists said.

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