Correction to This Article
An Oct. 16 Metro article about Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele incorrectly said that actor Joseph C. Phillips's character on "The Cosby Show" was married to the eldest Huxtable daughter. It was the second-oldest daughter, Denise.

2004 GOP Tour Prepped Steele for Senate Run

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 16, 2006

Some of the ministers gathering at the Genesis Dreamplex Hotel in Toledo were wary of the concept of a black Republican.

Only after everyone agreed there would be no photographers, the ministers grudgingly accepted the invitation to breakfast with Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and other members of the Empowering People of Color Tour.

As coffee was poured, a former Cosby Show actor warmed up the room. Then Steele took the microphone.

"My charge," Steele told ministers, according to news accounts, "is to take the president's positive policies, which are empowering people of color, [and bring them] out to the African American community."

It was Oct. 19, 2004, a year before Steele would be drafted by top Republicans in Washington to launch his bid for U.S. Senate. And although his lieutenant governor's office schedule gave no indication of his whereabouts, Steele was out of state, barnstorming the country for his president and party.

The national tour, organized by then-Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, teamed Steele, boxing promoter Don King and a handful of semi-celebrities and mid-level politicians to stump for Bush's reelection bid and present African Americans with a new face for the GOP.

His days on the road served as a formative experience, Steele said recently. In some ways, it became a precursor to the campaign Steele is running as he seeks a Senate seat in Maryland, a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1. In fact, King arrives today to stump for his old friend. Then, as now, Steele was honing his most powerful skill: his ability to extend a hand to Democrats, particularly black Democrats, and try to bring them around.

"What I discovered was there's an enormous opportunity for Republicans if we engage," Steele said. "If we start breaking down some of the barriers."

The approach was gentle.

"We weren't bashing other candidates; we weren't bashing Democrats," said Erika Harold, Miss America 2003, an emcee on the tour. "We were just asking for the opportunity to compete for their vote."

Traveling with a state police escort, Steele crisscrossed the Midwest. From Toledo, he headed for Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, then Detroit. A few days later, he hopped a plane to Cleveland, and then Miami, Philadelphia and New York. The group made more than a dozen stops, all with the goal of persuading African Americans to leave behind decades of allegiance to Democrats.

In some towns, it was a tough sell.

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