Steele in Spotlight as Campaign Kicks Off

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele talks to reporters, with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Seat Pleasant Mayor Eugene W. Grant, during a visit to Seat Pleasant in April.
Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele talks to reporters, with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Seat Pleasant Mayor Eugene W. Grant, during a visit to Seat Pleasant in April. (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 27, 2005

There has been a reliable stagecraft to any news conference featuring Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. over the past three years:

Ehrlich (R) steps before a bank of cameras to take questions. Just over his right shoulder, his tall, impeccably dressed lieutenant governor, Michael S. Steele, hovers silently to lend support and fill out the television frame.

It's an image of diversity and teamwork that has helped make Ehrlich-Steele one of the more functional State House marriages in recent memory. But yesterday, as Steele set out on the first full day of his nascent campaign for U.S. Senate, that familiar stance was, for the first time, reversed.

At a news conference at a Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police lodge, it was Steele who stepped to center stage, with Ehrlich silent in the wings, as the Republican candidate for Senate began addressing questions about a litany of national issues. Most were topics Steele previously refused to entertain, or discussed only sparingly so as not to differ publicly with Ehrlich.

Steele offered frank responses, for instance, to questions about abortion, the war in Iraq, Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers and the flagging popularity of President Bush.

"I know individuals in my community have real concerns about this president," he said. "I'm sensitive to that. But George Bush isn't running for U.S. Senate in Maryland. Michael Steele is. I'm hoping they will look at me."

Many will be getting a first look now that Steele is stepping out of the shadows of the Ehrlich administration, and some may be surprised to learn that the two men differ on a number of politically charged issues -- most notably, abortion and capital punishment.

Ehrlich acknowledged as much Tuesday, after Steele announced his candidacy. "As lieutenant governor, his job description was to go with the program," Ehrlich said. "Now, Mike will go out there, and he'll have his own views."

Yesterday, Steele expressed several of those views, describing himself as a "pro-life Roman Catholic," a supporter of the Iraq war and a fan of the president's, even if he recognizes that Bush "has a numbers problem right now." He said he did not know enough about Miers to weigh in on her nomination but expressed hope that any Supreme Court justice would "respect the Constitution" and not legislate from the bench.

Steele echoed many of the themes of his Tuesday speech, saying he hopes to emphasize kitchen-table concerns, such as the availability of high-wage jobs. In short, Steele tried to strike a balance between his conservative views and the realities of politics in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2 to 1 and where a new poll shows Bush's support among blacks at 3 percent.

Democrats said they'd like nothing better than to ensure that voters are acquainted with Steele's views.

"What we've heard reinforces why so many people so close to President Bush support his campaign and urged him to run," said U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, one of six Democrats to announce campaigns for the seat being vacated by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D). Also in that race are former congressman Kweisi Mfume, forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren, U.S. history professor Allan J. Lichtman, philanthropist Joshua Rales and activist A. Robert Kaufman.

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