ST. PAUL, Minn. - Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele called John McCain a leader who "understands the life lessons of those who sacrifice" last night during a Republican convention address that included a plea for voters to "put your country first."
Steele introduced a convention hall and television viewers to his mother, Maebell Turner, for the second time in four years. Last night, he called Turner "a sharecropper's daughter who throughout her life suffered many hardships" but who instilled in him "the ideal of putting family, community [and] country above self."
Among the most visible African-American Republicans in the country, Steele said that he and McCain shared the same core beliefs - similar to the values instilled by Turner, a Washington laundress.
Among them: "that the ideal of a colorblind society is worth fighting for because each man, woman and child is an individual, and not a member of some hyphenated class or group," he said.
When Steele spoke at the 2004 Republican convention in New York, he was considered among his party's rising stars, and was on the verge of being recruited to run for Senate. Some commentators described his address then as the Republican answer to Barack Obama, who had his national coming-out party at the Democratic convention in Boston weeks earlier.
After losing the Senate race, Steele became a national television commentator and head of the candidate recruitment organization GOPAC.
Steele last night called for long-held Republican goals of school choice and lower taxes, and used one of his trademark expressions in advocating reduced dependency on foreign oil.
"Let me make it clear: Drill, baby, drill," Steele said to cheers inside the Xcel Center. The crowd repeatedly chanted the line in response.
Steele kicked off the third of four hours of speeches and video presentations last night, preceding ex-governors and presidential candidates Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. His entrance on stage prompted an enthusiastic response from the Maryland delegation, which waved small state flags. Delegates seated on the floor repeatedly yelled "Michael," and alternate delegates in a higher section came back with "Steele."
"I think he did Maryland proud," said Patt Parker of Dunkirk, president of the Maryland Federation of Republican Women. "We are looking forward to seeing more of Michael in politics."
Steele spoke on a night when several other Hispanic and black Republicans addressed delegates, although the party's efforts to reach out to blacks are more challenging this year because of the candidacy of Obama, whom Steele did not mention by name.
Polls show that about nine in 10 black voters are backing Obama. A study released last week by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which focuses on African-American issues, concluded that 36 of 2,380 convention delegates are black, or 1.5 percent, down from the record 6.7 percent in 2004. None are from Maryland, with a population that is 29 percent black. "John McCain is likely to receive a historically low share of the black vote," the report concluded.
Steele accompanied McCain to a July meeting of the Urban League in Orlando, but the report found that such efforts are unlikely to win the support of black voters.
Chris Cavey of Baltimore County, the Maryland chairman for McCain, dismissed critics who charge that Steele's prominence is related to his race.
"Michael Steele gets visibility because he is an excellent public speaker who presents the message well," Cavey said. "He could be green and he still would be a speaker....I don't think it's tokenism."