By Matthew Mosk and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 14, 2006
Maryland Senate candidate Michael S. Steele said yesterday that his strong personal opposition to legalizing abortion would not factor into his work in Washington, or his evaluation of a nominee for U.S. Supreme Court justice, should he be elected next month.
"I have no litmus test in that regard because my constitutional obligation is to represent the people of the state," said Steele, who is Catholic.
"In that instance, you put on the bench the best jurist because our country is more than one issue, even though it's a profound issue," he said during a meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters. "I have never subscribed to a benchmark, litmus test mentality. And I never would. I never will."
The Republican candidate was less emphatic when asked about gun rights and suggested that his general support might not extend to assault weapons.
"You draw the line. I mean, what do you need an assault weapon for?" Steele said. The National Rifle Association has spent about $4,000 in support of his bid this year, campaign finance records show.
The remarks highlighted a continued effort by Steele -- who is running in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2 to 1 -- to soften the edges on his conservative views on a number of incendiary social issues.
They came the day after the lieutenant governor began a television ad criticizing his party for implementing an education policy, the No Child Left Behind act, that he says "teaches to the test."
"It's clear that Michael Steele will say anything to get elected," said Oren Shur, a spokesman for Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, Steele's Democratic rival. "At this point, it's hard to tell if Steele is just hiding his support for Bush's convictions or if he has no real convictions at all."
If there has been any brushback from the Republican National Committee, Steele said he was unaware of it. Steele said yesterday, "They ain't gonna give up on the brother."
Steele has spent much of his campaign distancing himself from the GOP in a year when the president is polling below 40 percent nationally and lower in Maryland.
Earlier yesterday, Steele and Cardin spoke about economics, health care and gas prices at a forum held by the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce.
The candidates stood at the same podium, answering many of the same questions, but they spoke separately. They overlapped briefly, shaking hands in the back of the hotel ballroom as Cardin departed and Steele arrived.
Their contrasts in style and substance were striking. Cardin, sounding like a policy professor, presented himself as a fiscally responsible "deficit hawk" with a record of working with Republicans during his 20 years in Congress.
"I'm a hawk on paying the bills," Cardin told the audience of about 100 people. "It doesn't sell well in the polls. People love tax cuts; people love big spending. Well, legislators have to make tough decisions."
Steele, emphasizing his personal story, portrayed himself as an outsider who would bring a small-business owners' perspective to what he called out-of-touch official Washington.
"Washington, in my view, has gotten outside itself," he said. "It is beyond the ivory tower. It is a place that none of us have any clue of what they're doing because they have no clue as to what's going on in your daily lives."
On policy, the candidates' differences were most apparent on two issues. Cardin opposes suspending the federal gas tax because, he said, the revenue is needed to pay for critical transportation projects. Steele said he would suspend the tax for four months to give consumers a break. On health care, Cardin supports a universal coverage plan similar to legislation passed in Massachusetts. Steele prefers to give businesses more flexibility to pool their resources.