On trail, Steele changes his GOP tune

Maryland 2006 Votes

September 07, 2006|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

The Senate hopeful quoted President John F. Kennedy's views on poverty in America. He modeled a bold pinstriped suit featured in a clothing line designed by a famous hip-hop media mogul known for his liberal activism.

And he bashed the Republican Party for denying working Americans a long-awaited increase in the minimum wage.

But the candidate speaking at a recent campaign event in Baltimore's Fells Point wasn't a Democrat. It was Republican Michael S. Steele, Maryland's lieutenant governor.

Rather, it was the new and improved Steele, who is attempting to distance himself from the Bush administration and the Republican Party policies he has backed since his days as state party chairman. With his eye on Maryland's open U.S. Senate seat, Steele is working to cast himself as an independent thinker who will fight for blacks and minorities, political experts say.

The image Steele is pushing, they say, is masterful: his issues-free but personality-rich new television ad (in which he does not mention his party affiliation), his recent appearance in Baltimore with Russell Simmons of Def Jam Records. He has also adopted the campaign buzzword du jour: "change."

"To take ownership of our careers, to take ownership of our communities, to take ownership of our lives, requires that we change the game," he said during that endorsement party with Simmons.

He ended his remarks with the catchphrase of his first commercial. "Are you ready for change?" he said to yelps and applause. "Then get ready for Steele."

Can a Republican - especially one whose campaign treasury has swelled as a result of fundraisers hosted by the president, vice president and a long list of administration officials - represent change? Or will his links to an unpopular administration (on Baltimore radio, Steele called President Bush his "homeboy") inevitably hamper his election hopes?

"Just as Democrats tried to distance themselves from Bill Clinton in the midterm elections of 1994 and 1998, there are a lot of Republican candidates around the country this year who are trying to stake out their independence from this White House as well," said Dan Schnur, a Republican political consultant who served as communications director for Arizona Sen. John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign.

Candidates for office, regardless of party, are always packaged. And in Steele's case, it's no secret that to win in Maryland he must have support from Democrats, who outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 in voter registration.

But the Steele emerging on the campaign trail is a departure from the one who has held office for four years. The official who has supported President Bush's war in Iraq and tax cuts, and lobbied for Bush's re-election at the 2004 Republican National Convention, has been replaced by a candidate who rarely mentions the president unless it's to criticize him.

Steele, whose campaign did not respond to requests for comment, is also taking a new social message directly to black voters, a traditionally Democratic constituency, promoting an "anti-poverty agenda" that includes an increase in the minimum wage and lower taxes.

Carl Struble, a Democratic media consultant based in Washington, said Steele's strategy is disingenuous. "It's pretty hard for a tiger to change his stripes," he said.

"I just think that he's going to have a really hard time in a blue state like Maryland for anybody to believe, after he has kissed up to Bush for years, that all of sudden he's going to act like he doesn't even know him and be independent from him," Struble said. "That's not a very believable thing. It's a deathbed conversion."

Republicans, however, think Steele is one of their most marketable candidates.

Steele is the highest-ranking African-American official in a state that is 29 percent black. He has never won elected office on his own and has no voting record to defend. And as the No. 2 man in a still-popular state administration, he has had few concrete policy responsibilities.

Aside from public statements and a handful of commission chairmanships, he remains a relatively blank slate - which Republicans are working to design. "This is not one [contest] where the party's on the defense," said Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. "This is one where the party's on the offense."

Steele's occasional verbal blunders, such as his comparison this year of embryonic stem cell research to Nazi medical experiments, has been tempered by his new focus. These days, he is talking about economic empowerment, poverty, the environment and an increase in federal loan and grant programs so that young people can afford college.

"To tell you the truth, there are not enough people in either party, quite frankly, that are willing to say even one word about poverty, much less do anything about it," Steele said during the Simmons event. "So our anti-poverty agenda will require us to get the attention and support from people in both parties - and to do that, we're going to have to shake things up."

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