Steele Absent From Bush GOP Fundraiser

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is seeking reelection, introduces President Bush at a fundraiser in Baltimore for the state Republican Party.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is seeking reelection, introduces President Bush at a fundraiser in Baltimore for the state Republican Party. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 1, 2006

President Bush shuttled into Maryland last night to help the state Republican Party raise more than $1 million for a number of high-profile 2006 races, but only one of the state's two marquee Republican candidates joined him.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. stood on a riser shoulder to shoulder with the president, but the party's leading candidate for an open U.S. Senate seat in Maryland, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, was absent. Steele had a scheduling conflict, campaign spokesman Doug Heye said.

In a speech to 300 Ehrlich loyalists, Bush focused on what he said were the high points of the governor's first term, including initiatives to promote charter schools and the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

"I like Bob Ehrlich because he's not afraid to take on problems," Bush said. "Bob Ehrlich is a problem solver."

As they waited for the president to speak in a hotel ballroom near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, several Republicans in the crowd said they were not concerned about Bush's poll numbers in Maryland. His approval rating in the state has dipped below 30 percent, according to a recent poll.

Democrats were eager to promote Bush's appearance, figuring it wouldn't help Ehrlich politically.

"We encourage him to come back every day and spend more and more time with Governor Ehrlich," a grinning Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said at a news event yesterday morning. O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan are the two Democrats seeking to unseat Ehrlich this fall.

Democratic Party officials also were quick to spotlight Steele's decision to miss the event. Steele was in Nevada to attend a fundraiser in his honor, his campaign aides said.

Analysts disagreed over whether Steele was sending a message. The lieutenant governor has not been shy about appearing close to the president, having taken part in numerous events with Bush's close aides and relatives and a fundraiser headlined by Bush.

Jennifer Duffy, managing editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said it is one thing for a candidate to pass on an event with the president if he has a clear conflict, such as a pending vote on Capitol Hill. "It's a lot harder to explain that you didn't attend an event with the president because you were going to an event hosted by a senator from another state," Duffy said. "I think you have to assume there is some element of him distancing himself not only from the president, but from the party."

In Maryland, any Republican running statewide will have to reach across the aisle for votes. The state's registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly two to one.

Steele's candidacy, in particular, has been designed to draw support from black voters who may be disaffected Democrats but still disapprove of Bush in overwhelming numbers. One internal Democratic Party poll recently put Bush's support from black voters in Maryland at 8 percent.

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