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Steele Fundraiser Draws Rove, Democratic Attacks

Maryland political analysts said Steele's ties to national Republican figures -- and Rove in particular -- could cut two ways for him if he chooses to run for the Senate seat opening up when Paul S. Sarbanes (D) retires next year.

In a state where John Kerry beat President Bush by 13 points and Democrats have maintained a strong majority of registered voters, the association may not be helpful, said Donald Norris, a government professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"I would assume the Democrats are gleeful," Norris said of the Rove event. "I find it very, very odd that he would do something like this, knowing it will create a storm of controversy, especially when it's not necessary."

Storm of controversy might be an overstatement, but Democrats did mount an aggressive effort to publicize the event.

In addition to the protesters, Democrats circulated a mass e-mail from Kerry critical of the event and held a conference call with Larry C. Johnson, a former CIA agent and Plame classmate who has been one of Rove's most outspoken critics.

Johnson, a registered Republican from Bethesda, called on Steele to cancel the appearance with Rove, because, he said, "that kind of association is not what you want. . . . We don't need the Republican Party in Maryland tarred."

But James G. Gimpel, a government professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, said political calculations are different this early in a campaign, when a candidate's primary goal is to raise money.

"The main thing Michael Steele needs right now are the connections to the deep pockets," Gimpel said.

Steele is not expected to face competition for the GOP nomination. Three Democratic candidates have announced for Sarbanes's seat: Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, former congressman and former NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume and Baltimore activist A. Robert Kaufman.

Staff writer Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.

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