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Steele Addresses Negative Comments on Bush

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 27, 2006; B01

On Monday, he didn't want President Bush campaigning for him. Yesterday, he called the president "my homeboy" and more than welcomed Bush to Maryland.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's awkward dance with the media and the White House continued after the publication of quotes in which the U.S. Senate hopeful, speaking anonymously, had distanced himself from the president and his party.

Steele (R) was greeted at a morning event in Prince George's County by four television stations eager to hear more about the Monday luncheon, which was billed as a "background" briefing for reporters who could identify him only as a Republican Senate candidate.

But Steele -- who acknowledged Tuesday that the quotes were his -- clearly was not interested in rehashing the luncheon. He apologized for his early departure from a news conference yesterday, which was held to announce festivities related to a late-September college football game in Prince George's, and then he slipped out the back door.

"The press is, as you can tell, anxious to talk to me," Steele said to no one in particular. "But I'm not going to interrupt these proceedings."

"Why did you say being a Republican is like wearing a scarlet letter, sir?" a television reporter shouted as Steele disappeared. "Why did you say being a Republican is like wearing a scarlet letter?"

Just a few hours later, in the confines of conservative talk radio, Steele said he welcomed the chance to clarify his comments, which were critical of the Iraq war and Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina. But he backed away from his suggestion at the luncheon Monday that he would "probably not" want Bush to come to Maryland to campaign for him.

"I've been quoted before as calling the president my homeboy, you know, and that's how I feel," Steele said on WBAL (1090 AM) radio in Baltimore. "I'm not afraid of George Bush. If the president wants to come and help me in Maryland, he is more than welcome. I'm not going to turn my back on a friend. I'm not going to do that. I want to make that very clear."

For Democrats, it was another day to relish the pitfalls that Republicans face in a state where they are outnumbered nearly 2 to 1 and their president is not so popular.

Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman said Steele seemed to have a "fatal attraction" to Bush -- eager for his fundraising help but wary of his political baggage.

"Steele should know that if there's one thing that Marylanders like less than Bush, it's politicians like Michael Steele who try to have it both ways," Lierman said.

White House press secretary Tony Snow suggested that Bush was just fine with the relationship. Snow said Steele's comments had come to Bush's attention, but he declined to share the president's reaction.

"I could, but I won't," Snow said with a laugh. "The president understands what politics are about, and he wants Michael Steele to be elected United States senator."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who picked Steele as his running mate in 2002, touted Steele's "independent streak" yesterday while distancing himself from his lieutenant governor's comments.

"He's always going to speak his mind," Ehrlich told reporters after a meeting in Annapolis. "Those are his views. They're not my views."

During the radio interview, Steele suggested that he was surprised to see his unattributed comments in print Tuesday in an article by Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank. Steele said they represented only a portion of what he said at the luncheon -- leaving out, he said, comments favorable to Bush.

And Steele said he was surprised by all the attention, given that he has made similar statements in the past. "There was nothing new said," Steele said.

"I'm not trying to dis the president," he added. "I'm not trying to distance myself from the president. I'm trying to show those lines where I have a different perspective and a different point of view. If I'm not free to share that as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, how can people expect me to share that and express that as a United States senator?"

Staff writers Peter Baker and Steve Vogel contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company