Steele Takes a Head-On Jab at His Party

In an ad, Michael S. Steele says the GOP education policy
In an ad, Michael S. Steele says the GOP education policy "teaches to a test." (By Matt Houston -- Associated Press)
By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2006

Maryland Senate candidate Michael S. Steele, who often avoids mentioning his political affiliation in the overwhelmingly Democratic state, took one of his most direct swipes at his party in a new commercial yesterday while continuing to fault Democrats.

In the ad, Steele criticizes Republicans for creating an education policy "that teaches to a test," a reference to President Bush's No Child Left Behind law, and Democrats for putting "bureaucracy ahead of our kids."

"Some Republicans forget folks still climbing that ladder," he says, and Democrats "just raise their taxes."

Meanwhile, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin is trying to use the lieutenant governor's own words to pin Steele to the unpopular president. In the Democratic candidate's latest 30-second spot, the announcer says, "Steele wants you to believe he'll follow his own convictions. The truth?" The screen then flashes to Steele onstage at the 2004 Republican National Convention declaring: "The standard-bearer of these convictions is George W. Bush."

Steele, the former chairman of the state Republican Party, has played down his party ties throughout the campaign. He has pledged to be a "bridge of steel" between Republicans and Democrats and has pointed out problems with Bush's signature education policy. His criticism of the president and his party became public in July after he acknowledged sharing it privately with reporters.

The ad marks some of his most direct public comments about the GOP. Like Steele, the state's last Republican senator, Charles McC. Mathias Jr., avoided talking about his party or listing it in his literature.

"What's unusual is that Steele has taken the next step," said John N. Bambacus, who teaches politics at Frostburg State University and managed Mathias's campaign in 1980.

Steele can afford to openly criticize his party, Bambacus said, because the GOP base has "nowhere else to go."

Dan Ronayne, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said many candidates are expressing dissatisfaction with official Washington.

Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.) took a similar approach in one ad, saying, "I believe that neither Republicans nor Democrats are always right. I angered Republicans when I voted against the war in Iraq and Democrats when I voted for legal reform."

To Ronayne, Steele's critique is not surprising. "Michael Steele is an independent voice, and he speaks his mind," he said. "He's pointing out problems he sees in Washington on both sides."

As is independent candidate Kevin Zeese, who has the backing of the Green, Libertarian and Populist parties. He has tried to tap into voter dissatisfaction by offering himself as an alternative to the candidates from the two major parties.

With Republicans on the defensive nationally, Cardin has repeatedly tried to link Steele to Bush, noting his support for the Iraq war and for the president's veto of a bill to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Cardin spokesman Oren Shur accused Steele of trying to "re-create himself" through the ad, saying, "Michael Steele is in lock step with the Bush agenda."

Steele spokesman Doug Heye, noting that he counted more than 100 references to Bush by Cardin during the candidates' debate this month, shot back, "This race is not about George Bush."

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