Steele distances himself from Bush

Cheney to appear at event tonight for Senate candidate


Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele defended himself yesterday against critics who have tried to tie him to the Bush administration - distancing his U.S. Senate campaign from a lame duck president with sagging poll numbers.

Steele's comments, made outside a high school in Northeast Baltimore, came as his campaign prepares to host Vice President Dick Cheney at a $1,000-per-person fundraiser tonight, timing that did not escape his foes.

"When people start talking about linking me to the president I have one question for them: Who's running for the U.S. Senate? Michael Steele, not George Bush," the Republican said, answering a question about his stance on education.

Steele has been criticized by several Democratic candidates running for the seat being vacated by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes as being too cozy with a presidential administration that has an exceedingly low approval rating. A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed Bush with a 36 percent approval rating .

A Cheney spokeswoman said yesterday that the vice president is committed to keeping a Republican majority in the House and the Senate after this year's midterm elections and that he is keeping an active schedule of fundraisers.

"The vice president believes that Lt. Gov. Steele will be an asset to the Senate," said Lea Anne McBride. "He thinks this is a great pickup opportunity, and thinks he will do an excellent job working for Maryland."

An invitation obtained by The Sun indicates that the fundraiser will be held in Washington at a private home tonight. Attendees will contribute $1,000 for a general ticket and $5,000 for a photo opportunity.

Asked if supportive comments from the Bush administration could hurt his chances in Maryland, given the state's overwhelmingly Democratic makeup, Steele said he appreciated being recognized as an asset by the White House.

"I'm an asset to some people and I'm a threat to others," said Steele, who was in Baltimore to meet with 16 students enrolled in the Reginald Lewis High School after-school male mentoring program. "So I guess I'm in a good spot."

Maryland Democratic officials pounced on the fundraiser yesterday, arguing that you cannot separate the candidate from those who help him generate cash. Bush brought in $500,000 for Steele at a fundraiser in November. Bush's chief political adviser Karl Rove has also appeared at an event for Steele.

"This is another in a series of Bush-Cheney fundraisers and the voters ought to know where Steele is getting his money from and who he's beholden to," said David Paulson, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party.

"It's just flabbergasting and disingenuous to hear him try to distance himself from Dick Cheney," he said.

Steele had amassed about $787,000 in cash as of the end of last year, according to campaign disclosure reports filed in January. Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who is also running, had $2.2 million and former congressman Kweisi Mfume, also a Democrat, had about $125,000.

Mfume's campaign did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday but a spokesman for Cardin, Oren Shur, said he believes it is important for voters to understand the influence the administration has had in the race.

"The vast majority of Marylanders reject the Bush agenda," Shur said. "President Bush, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove are putting millions of dollars into Michael Steele's campaign and they're doing that because Steele supports their agenda right down the line."

Sun reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article

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