Debate Puts Steele on Defense

By Matthew Mosk and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 30, 2006

Republican Michael S. Steele struggled to soften his long-held views on touchstone social issues yesterday after being challenged repeatedly on his conservative beliefs during his final televised debate in the campaign for Maryland's open U.S. Senate seat.

The debate on NBC's "Meet the Press" put on display the stark differences between Steele and Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin as they enter their final week of campaigning.

The two spent half the debate clashing on the war in Iraq -- with Steele saying the conflict "has been worth it to the extent that what we're trying to establish there is a beachhead of democracy." Cardin called it a "tragedy" and urged a gradual pullout of troops.

But the most dramatic exchanges came when host Tim Russert pressed Steele about his opposition to abortion and embryonic stem cell research, and about his long-standing support for President Bush. Such views don't typically sit well in heavily Democratic Maryland, and they have gone largely unmentioned by Steele during his year on the campaign trail.

The lieutenant governor responded by telling Russert that he would not support a constitutional amendment to ban abortion and would support research conducted on embryonic stem cells, so long as the embryo is not destroyed.

When Russert asked him, "Are you running as a proud Bush Republican?" Steele replied pointedly, "I'm a proud Republican."

This marked the first time in a series of debates that Steele has appeared on the defensive. During a televised forum last week, it was Cardin who was put on the spot about the route of Metro's proposed Purple Line and, more broadly, his knowledge of key issues in the Washington suburbs.

Cardin, a 10-term congressman from the Baltimore area, appeared nervous at times yesterday but stuck to a series of talking points about his consistent opposition to the president and the war.

Steele's answers showcased what has been a slow drift from his conservative moorings. It's a shift that in part owes to the realities of campaigning in a state where two-thirds of all voters support abortion rights and only one-third approve of President Bush's job performance, according to a Washington Post poll published yesterday.

"Steele got caught between his base and the deep blue sea," said Walter Ludwig, a Democratic consultant who advised Kweisi Mfume in the primary. "It's tough for him because he knows that if he says what he really thinks, that's not what voters of Maryland really want."

Steele acknowledged after the debate that he has undergone something of a transformation. In February, he likened embryonic stem cell research to Nazi experimentation, later apologizing for the remarks. And he campaigned fiercely for Bush in 2004.

"Have I moved off of my philosophical orientation on these issues? The answer is no," Steele said. "But I have learned to listen to the people. . . . In that sense, I have grown."

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