Steele signaling his independence


It was billed as Senate candidate Michael S. Steele's announcement of his "agenda for education achievement." But the sparsely attended event in the parking lot of Prince George's Community College this month was more notable for Steele's bashing of President Bush's sweeping No Child Left Behind Act.

Not only did local newspapers pick up the comments, but conservative syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote Sunday that "In his brief remarks, [Steele] could not find anything favorable to say about the president."

And now, Steele's campaign spokesman has confirmed that the lieutenant governor will not attend a fundraiser tonight for the Maryland GOP headlined by Bush, citing a scheduling conflict. Steele will be in Las Vegas for his own fundraiser, Doug Heye said.

Since announcing last June that he was exploring a Senate bid, Steele has opened his arms to Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, presidential adviser Karl Rove, former White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and former President George H.W. Bush - all of whom have raised money for his campaign. But with his absence tonight, Steele is sending a signal to Maryland's overwhelmingly Democratic electorate that he will not move in lockstep with a Republican leadership that faces dwindling approval ratings and growing criticism from party members.

"It is very much in this candidate's interest to maintain a bit of distance ... to demonstrate his independence," said former Tennessee Sen. Bill Brock, a past national GOP chairman who was the party's Maryland Senate nominee in 1994. "I think that's smart politics, and I don't think it is an insult."

Steele, the first African-American to win statewide office in Maryland, has grown fond of saying on the campaign trail that it is he, not the president, who will appear on the ballot in November. He is choosing signature issues - divestiture of the state's pension portfolio from companies with interests in Sudan, for example - that he hopes will distinguish him from the administration and attract interest from moderate voters, and blacks in particular.

Before a crowd of thousands on the National Mall in April, he implored the Bush administration to do more to stop the ethnic killing in Sudan's troubled Darfur region.

"The United States may have provided billions of dollars of economic and humanitarian assistance, but we need to provide more than just money," he said. "We must provide leadership."

Steele recently called for a temporary repeal of the federal gas tax to provide consumer relief and has talked about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq - something the president has refused to discuss.

Voter attitudes toward the incumbent administration shape the outcome of federal contests during midterm elections, said James Gimpel, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, College Park. Steele faces a distinct challenge, Gimpel said, because Bush's approval ratings linger in the 30s and because Steele is running in a state in which Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of 2 to 1. The Democratic front-runners, former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, have a built-in advantage, Gimpel said.

Nonetheless, Steele's expected absence tonight is noteworthy, Gimpel said. Up to now, Steele has been willing to appear in public with the president and his top aides, and his campaign has insisted that he welcomes their support. Gimpel said Steele's decision not to attend also indicates that the candidate's fundraising strategy and campaign strategy have officially parted ways.

"You have to pay attention to people's local preferences or you're just not going to attract enough crossover support in Steele's case to be a candidate in the fall," Gimpel said. "And that's what he needs. He doesn't need more Iraq war supporters. He doesn't need more fans of President Bush. He needs would-be Cardin voters or would-be Mfume voters."

Heye said the Nevada event has been scheduled for weeks and that Steele needs to raise money to withstand attacks from Democratic opponents. The spokesman said Steele is in no way begging out of the Maryland event to avoid being seen with Bush.

"The lieutenant governor has always been forthright with voters of Maryland of his position on the issues," Heye said. "Where he agrees with the president he says so. Where he disagrees, he says so."

Asked if Steele would be willing to make an appearance with the president in the future, Heye was noncommittal.

"I don't know if the president is going to have any more events scheduled in Maryland," he said.

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