Steele must be careful of shadow he's standing in

November 29, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

George W. Bush, having returned from all the places in the world where he could duck the political flak in Washington, plans to come here tomorrow. He'll walk into a crowd at the ballpark where the Baltimore Ravens play a vague approximation of professional football and hope to distract everybody long enough for Michael Steele to dip into their wallets.

But the nervousness around the hustle is palpable. The lieutenant governor of Maryland wants everybody to pay attention to Bush, but not so much attention that they remember what this president's been doing, and then connect it too closely to Steele.

It's a pretty delicate dance. Democratic activists have been planning for at least the past couple of weeks to demonstrate outside the ballpark and make enough noise that everybody notices the Bush-Steele connection and asks the proper questions about it.

Such as: What does Steele think about Bush's war in Iraq, which has the country so nervous and Capitol Hill so antagonistic that the president couldn't wait to get out of Washington for a while? Steele wants to become a U.S. senator. Would he stand by Bush's policies in Iraq or would he have the courage to say: Mr. President, you've botched this thing - you moved the facts around to build a phony case for combat and that's created a whole new generation of people around the globe who hate this country?

And more questions: Where does Steele stand on Bush's Social Security plans? On Bush's tax cuts? And what does he think about these CIA leaks that led to Lewis "Scooter" Libby's indictment and continue to keep Dick Cheney and Karl Rove awake at night?

The Rove question arises from the fundraiser Steele held last summer in Washington when the big draw was Rove. It looked better then than it does now. Then, Rove was merely seen as the president's brain; now he's seen as somebody who might have outed a U.S. spy out of political spite.

Politics often makes for awkward alliances. When the national Republican Party was wooing Steele to run for the Senate, it made all sorts of promises. It would raise lots of money for him. It would bring the president here to talk him up.

Everybody knows why. The party that tried to stand in the way of nearly every piece of civil rights legislation over the last half of the 20th century sees in the African-American Steele a chance to finally begin changing the very face of its identity. First Colin Powell. Then Condoleezza Rice. Now look at us, America: We've got three black people in the Republican Party!

As Steele gives up being lieutenant governor to run for Paul Sarbanes' vacated Senate seat, having the president show up for tomorrow's fundraiser would ordinarily be a slam-dunk. The affair should bring in lots of money (at $125 a ticket, or $5,000 for a photo with Bush), and it lets the candidate bask in the aura of the most powerful person in the world.

But this is a president with diminishing muscle. At last count, the independent, nonpartisan polling firm of Potomac Inc., measured Bush's popularity in Maryland at 33 percent. That was three weeks ago. Last week, a Harris poll in The Wall Street Journal said 64 percent of Americans now believe that the Bush administration "generally misleads the American public on current issues to achieve its own ends."

Earlier this month, when Bush attempted to provide political help to candidates in New Jersey and Virginia, the candidates carefully kept him at arm's length as they approached Election Day. They preferred to run strictly on their own records.

But Steele's a different case. Plucked out of relative political obscurity three years ago, he's the junior partner in an administration whose primary identity is the waste of three years promoting slot machines. The same Potomac poll that showed Bush at 33 percent also showed Steele's boss, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., trailing his Democratic opponents by significant margins.

With the Bush-Steele alliance, conventional wisdom is simple: You raise as much money as you can, and votes will follow as you spread it around. But what price money?

The gamble is that it's still early and most voters aren't focused on politics yet. By the time things get serious, the money's already been banked, and maybe they'll forget Steele's reliance on Bush. Or maybe Bush will be popular again.

Or maybe the Republicans still remember the guy Bush bumped off before John Kerry. His name was Al Gore. Gore tried to keep his distance from the last president, Bill Clinton. Everybody still remembered Monica. Gore figured he could get elected on his own. After all, the economy was strong, the country wasn't at war, and Gore had spent eight years in the White House during some pretty good times. In hindsight, maybe Gore misread the power of presidential support.

If things don't get better for Bush, Steele still has plenty of time to disassociate himself from specific White House policies. Tomorrow's gathering is strictly about money. Grab it, and hope Bush slips out of town before anybody makes too much out of Michael Steele's new best friend.

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