Steele's blunt words stir up speculation

Candidate could be distancing self from Bush

Maryland Votes 2006


The Iraq war, the unnamed Republican candidate for U.S. Senate said, "didn't work." The response to Hurricane Katrina was "a monumental failure of government." Fellow Republicans in Congress should "just shut up and get something done."

For a few hours yesterday, the friendly fire that was launched anonymously in a newspaper story set the capital abuzz with speculation about the speaker - a parlor game that ended abruptly when a campaign spokesman confirmed that the GOP Senate hopeful was Maryland's Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.

With the first mystery solved, then, attention focused on the second: Was the public criticism of an administration that has enthusiastically supported his Senate bid a gaffe, or was it calculated?

Running in a Democratic state, where just a third of likely voters approve of President Bush's performance, was Steele using his comments at a not-for-attribution meeting with reporters Monday as a way to distance himself from the White House in a forum that fell short of a public confrontation?

Campaign spokesman Doug Heye said yesterday that he would not comment on Steele's "expectations" for the lunchtime session at a Capitol Hill steakhouse. He also said that the quotes in The Washington Post article were accurate - but incomplete.

"He's somebody who likes to speak frankly on issues," Heye said. "He doesn't pull any punches, and that's something that the people of Maryland respect about him."

Steele's remarks came just a week after Sen. John Thune, a first-term Republican from South Dakota, created a stir in Washington when he said that if he were seeking office this year, he would be distancing himself from Bush.

"If I were running in the state this year, you obviously don't embrace the president and his agenda," he told reporters at the National Press Club.

Thune, the conservative who beat Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle in 2004, is a prime candidate to become his party's chief Senate campaign fundraiser next year.

He said Republicans are facing "a headwind" nationally, given the president's poor numbers "in most places."

Yesterday, Steele's opponents in the Senate race accused him of trying to have it both ways.

"Michael Steele wants Marylanders to forget that he is George W. Bush's choice for U.S. Senate," Ken Morley, the campaign manager for Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, said in a statement. "He wants Marylanders to forget that he backs the president's agenda, from supporting the war in Iraq to strongly opposing embryonic stem cell research."

But at least one analyst called the criticism a canny gambit, saying it could help Steele reach beyond his conservative base.

"It's a great move," said Matthew A. Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "He's trying to go after the African-American vote, and he knows they're even more opposed to the war and angry about Katrina than the rest of the population."

A Sun poll of likely voters this month had Steele winning just 23 percent of the black vote in a contest with Cardin. Against former U.S. Rep. and NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume, who is running even with Cardin for the Democratic nomination, Steele's black support drops to 11 percent.

"This will give him access to the black vote in Prince George's County, which he might not otherwise have," Crenson said. "Also, the Democratic liberal vote in Montgomery County.

"The only problem with it is that it's so obviously a tactical maneuver, it may be generally seen as a tactical maneuver."

Steele, the likely GOP nominee in the contest to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, sat down Monday with nine reporters from newspapers, magazines and networks for a wide-ranging, 90-minute discussion.

He was to be identified only as a Republican Senate candidate.

In the comments reported yesterday by Post columnist Dana Milbank, he drew distinctions between himself on one side and the White House and congressional Republicans on the other.

"We've lost our way, we've gone to the well and we drank the water, and we shouldn't have," he said. "You don't go to Congress to become the party that you've been fighting for 40 years."

On Iraq, Steele said: "People want an honest assessment from the administration, and they want to hear the administration admit we thought this, and it didn't happen than way, and - guess what - it didn't work, so we're going to try a Plan B."

And on Katrina: "In 2001, we were attacked and the president is on the ground, on a mound with his arm around the fireman, symbol of America.

"In Katrina, the president is at 30,000 feet in an airplane looking down at people dying, living on a bridge. And that disconnect, I think, sums up, for me at least, the frustration that Americans feel."

According to the Post, Steele - considered a rising GOP star - called his party affiliation "an impediment."

"It's an obstacle I have to overcome," he said. "I've got an `R' here, a scarlet letter."

Steele was also quoted as saying he would "probably not" want Bush to campaign for him.

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