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."
Carol Hirschburg, a GOP political consultant, said Russert's selection of such topics -- abortion and stem cell research rather than taxes or homeland security -- "were not designed to favor a Republican." She said it highlighted the difficulty Steele faces, especially when Cardin consistently tries to link him to the unpopular president. The Post poll showed Steele trailing Cardin by 11 percentage points.
"The challenge Michael faces, which I think he has handled extremely adroitly, is that he has to make the campaign about him and what kind of human being he is, and that he can be trusted by the people to do what he thinks is the right thing," Hirschburg said.
If the race were merely a contest of personalities, the Post poll shows, Steele would fare better. By 2 to 1, likely voters said they found the lieutenant governor more appealing than Cardin. Even Democrats said that was clear during the debate, with Steele appearing engaging while Cardin was sober and restrained.
When pressed, Steele tried to use humor to diffuse awkward moments, as when Russert played a clip of Steele forcefully endorsing Bush at the 2004 Republican National Convention and read news clips saying Steele was recruited to run by Bush strategist Karl Rove and Vice President Cheney.
"I've been outed," Steele said, laughing. "Okay, everybody, I'm a Republican."
Russert was undeterred, holding up a Steele bumper sticker that read, "Steele Democrat."
"That's not truth in advertising," Russert said.
"You've never heard of 'Reagan Democrats?' " Steele responded.
"It doesn't say, 'I'm a Steele Democrat.' It says 'Steele Democrat.' "
At times, Steele attempted to take on the role of moderator, directly challenging Cardin, for instance, on a vote against stem cell research. The bill would have required the National Institutes of Health to conduct the research without destroying embryos.
In the House, all of Maryland's Democrats and Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest joined in voting against the measure. In the Senate, though, the bill was passed with the support of both of Maryland's Democrats.
"What do Senator [Paul S.] Sarbanes and Senator [Barbara A.] Mikulski not know that you know, that caused them to vote for it, and you against it?" asked Steele, who sat elbow-to-elbow with Cardin.
Cardin responded that the vote "would do nothing at all to advance embryonic stem cell research," and that the Senate backed it as part of a compromise bill.
On the same topic, Russert asked Steele whether his opposition to destroying embryos for research would extend to fertility clinics that routinely discard embryos not used in pregnancies.
"I won't close down the fertility clinics," Steele said, but would "pursue options that would allow us to look at adoption."
Among the most jarring moments came when Russert confronted Steele on contradictions from past statements.
For instance, Russert asked Steele whether he still considers Clarence Thomas a hero. Steele replied that he has disagreed with the black Supreme Court justice on a number of issues, including affirmative action.
"I strongly support affirmative action," Steele said, an assertion Russert quickly disputed.
"No, I've always supported affirmative action," Steele said sternly.
"Well, if we go back in 1991, we've got a program here called 'Affirmative Action That Doesn't Work,' 'Affirmative Action's Become a Race-Based Quota Formula,' " Russert said.
"That's -- but that's not the same as saying, 'I don't support it," Steele responded.
Russert also pressed Steele on whether he would support a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion. At first, Steele said, "I don't think that's been proposed."
When Russert corrected him, Steele said he would not and believes laws on abortions should be left to the states.
After the debate, Steele said, "Everyone knows I'm a pro-life Roman Catholic. The idea of tinkering with the constitution goes against my sensibilities."
Douglas Stiegler, executive director of the socially conservative Family Protection Lobby, said Steele's answers did not concern him. "It sounds like he's trying not to get into that debate," Stiegler said. "From a political standpoint, I don't blame him."
Russert also pressed Cardin on abortion, asking about his vote against requiring minors to consult parents about the procedure.
"Parents should be involved in their children, absolutely," Cardin said. "The problem is you don't want it to become an obstacle, particularly where there has been family abuse. . . . You don't want it used as a way of preventing a child from getting the necessary medical attention."
Half of the one-hour show was devoted to the public's growing unease with the Iraq war.
Russert opened the show with a litany of Steele's shifting statements on the war and later asked Cardin to defend his suggestion that he would consider cutting off money for the war to force President Bush to withdraw troops.
Steele acknowledged that the war has "frustrated the American people" but said that even knowing what he knows today, "I would think we'd still prosecute the war."
Russert then presented Cardin with his own words from a newspaper article that suggested he would be willing to cut off money for troops in Iraq.
"You would vote to cut off funding for our troops while the war is going on?" Russert asked.
"No, I will never support turning our backs on our troops," Cardin said, adding that he would consider using the appropriations process to put pressure on the president to present a detailed war plan.