Steele pressed for answers

Democratic leaders call for explanation about his reversed positions


Leading Maryland Democrats said yesterday that Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele owes voters an explanation about why he bashed President Bush privately at a lunch with reporters but reversed course when his statements were made public in a newspaper column.

They also accused Steele, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, of deliberately misleading voters when he said on WBAL radio this week that he did not know Dana Milbank intended to publish the remarks in The Washington Post. In an e-mail obtained by The Sun, a Steele spokesman gave Milbank clearance to exclusively report the lieutenant governor's comments.

"I think he has an obligation to the people of Maryland to come clean and admit he wasn't truthful," Maryland Democratic Party chairman Terry Lierman said of Steele yesterday in a phone interview.

Steele's week of verbal gymnastics has led to his being skewered on Internet blogs and on cable television, and to speculation about whether the remarks were calculated to give voters the impression that there is political distance between him and Bush. The president has low approval ratings in Maryland, but, with other key figures in his administration, has raised substantial campaign cash for Steele, who calls him his "homeboy."

The dispute began Tuesday when Milbank reported that an unnamed Republican U.S. Senate candidate would "probably not" want Bush to campaign for him. That led to a guessing game in political schools and the swift admission by Steele's campaign that he was the source of the remarks.

Steele said Wednesday that Milbank had violated an agreement with his campaign to keep the information out of print and reversed course by saying he would welcome the president on the campaign trail.

Milbank stood by his reporting yesterday, saying on WBAL that Steele's campaign was fully apprised of what he was writing.

"Obviously he's wrong," Milbank said of Steele. "I have no idea what's going on in his head. [Steele spokesman] Doug Heye and his aides know well the ground rules they agreed to."

An e-mail from Heye to Milbank dated Monday indicates Heye knew the columnist was writing about the lunch.

"If there are specific quotes you'd like to use, can you email them to me so I could sign off?" Heye wrote. "I can hold off on signing off for other press for the time being, as well."

Heye did not return a request for comment. He was expected to do an interview on WBAL yesterday but never called in.

Two other reporters who attended the lunch said their understanding of the interview was the same as Milbank's.

Democrats seized on the episode as evidence that Steele "tries to have it both ways on the issues," as Lierman said. The state Democratic Party issued a release calling the whole episode a "naked political stunt."

"Over the course of three days, we've learned a lot about Michael Steele," said Ken Morley, campaign manager to U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. "Off the record, he says one thing, on the record, he says another. One day he lashes out against President Bush, the next he praises him and welcomes his support. One day he supports the war, then he's anti-war, and then he supports it again. The people of Maryland deserve a consistent and steady voice in the U.S. Senate."

Dan Ronayne, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the matter was being blown out of proportion by Democrats.

"Michael Steele is well-positioned to win this race, and this is background noise being amplified by political opponents fearful of losing more power in Maryland," he said.

Milbank said that representatives from ABC, NBC, The Hotline, The New York Times, Time magazine and others attended the Monday lunch and that reporters took notes, and some recorded the conversation. He said the interview included one or two positive remarks about Bush but that the rest was critical of the president.

He reported that Steele said being a Republican candidate for office this year is like wearing "a scarlet letter." Steele called the government's response to Hurricane Katrina "a monumental failure" and criticized management of the war in Iraq.

Milbank said he would be happy to make the 90-minute recording available to the public -- if the campaign would sign off. "The context was he was repeatedly going after the party leadership and the president -- some of the time in response to our questions, at other times unsolicited," Milbank said.

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