Bush helps Steele raise $500,000

President says Md. lieutenant governor has the character to be a U.S. senator


President Bush draped his arm around Michael S. Steele yesterday and praised him as a "decent, honorable man" at a fundraiser that added $500,000 to the lieutenant governor's campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Steele, considered a rising GOP star, was heavily recruited to run for Senate, and Bush's visit signaled the high level of support the national Republican Party is prepared to give him in the effort to pick up a seat in heavily Democratic Maryland.

Speaking to a crowd of several hundred inside M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, the president lauded Steele's commitment to education, fighting poverty and standing with the administration on the war in Iraq. But he focused most of his remarks on the lieutenant governor's character, saying Steele's mother, Maebell Turner, a Washington laundry worker, instilled solid values in her son.

"She understood the true definition of wealth and richness. ... She made her home rich in character, rich in turning hope into action," Bush said. "That's the kind of fellow you want in the United States Senate representing you."

Bush's appearance comes as his support in Maryland is at a historic low, with just one in three voters saying in a Sun poll last month that they approve of his job performance - the lowest in decades for a president.

Steele spoke only briefly at the event and did not take questions afterward. A spokesman said he would not be available for further comment yesterday. In his remarks, the lieutenant governor reiterated central campaign themes such as fighting addiction, poverty and crime. He said little about Bush.

"Mr. President, your presence here today sends a strong signal that Maryland welcomes an open dialogue about how we can overcome the challenges of this new century," Steele said. "We can do it together with your leadership, and I thank you for being here."

While Steele's campaign called the event a success, Bush has routinely raised much more for other candidates, including the lieutenant governor's political partner, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report who follows Senate races, said the president typically raises more than $1 million at events such as yesterday's.

"If it's a straight-up $500,000, I think that's a low-ball number," she said, adding that the $125 base ticket price was low for a presidential appearance.

When Bush came to Baltimore on the eve of the 2002 election, he raised $1.8 million for Ehrlich in what was at the time the largest political fundraiser in Maryland history. Mayor Martin O'Malley's gubernatorial campaign says it broke the record with a $2 million fundraiser in June that featured no national headliner.

Steele spokesman Lenny Alcivar said the event exceeded the campaign's expectations. He said the campaign sold about 800 tickets and raised roughly $500,000 before fundraising expenses. He said the difference between Steele's take and the amount Ehrlich raised lies in the stricter contribution rules for federal races.

On Monday, the president raised more than $1.4 million for Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl. In June, he raised $1.2 million for Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri and $1.1 million for Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

People in the audience appeared elated to see the president. As helicopters landed outside, attendees rushed to a bank of windows to guess which one carried Bush. When Steele introduced the president, he joked that he'd invited a friend to drop by for lunch. Someone in the audience shouted, "Some friend!"

The Steele supporters, who got pizza, pretzels and burgers with their tickets but had to pay $5 for parking, said they don't think the fundraiser with Bush will hurt Steele in the 2006 election.

"This is an event for the faithful," said Republican consultant Carol L. Hirschburg. "It is to excite the base. It is not for the voter on the street."

But Democrats and others said the event is evidence of Steele's ties to an administration that is profoundly unpopular in Maryland. A handful of protesters gathered outside the stadium, and one of Steele's prospective opponents issued a call Tuesday night for the lieutenant governor to say where he stands on key elements of the Bush agenda, such as Social Security privatization, the Iraq war and tax cuts.

"It's clear that we have a different vision on where we need to go with Iraq, on budget priorities, on health care," said U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democratic Senate candidate. "The president said it himself - he's campaigning for people who agree with his agenda."

Other Democrats in the race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes include former congressman and NAACP head Kweisi Mfume; American University professor Allan Lichtman; forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren; developer Joshua Rales; and activist A. Robert Kaufman. Independent candidate Kevin Zeese is also running.

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