Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele launched an exploratory bid yesterday for next year's U.S. Senate race, sounding very much like a candidate already -- and one with unusually strong backing from the state and national Republican parties.

Steele, who as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s running mate in 2002 became the first black candidate elected statewide, told reporters that he would spend the coming months talking to voters about "the opportunity to potentially fly solo" in 2006.

Steele left little doubt about his intentions during a half-hour conference call, though, at one point referring to himself as "the next senator from Maryland."

With the looming retirement of five-term Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D), "a new opportunity has presented itself, and I'm ready to stand up and meet that challenge and to take on that opportunity," said Steele, a resident of Prince George's County.

The son of a laundry worker, Steele, 46, has gained national attention within the GOP in recent years but remains untested as a top-of-the-ticket candidate. His staunch opposition to abortion and the death penalty, views he attributes to his Catholic faith -- he once pursued the priesthood -- are out of step with a majority of Marylanders.

Democrats, meanwhile, are gearing up for a lively primary fight, with three candidates in the race and at least two others considering a bid.

Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman said yesterday that whoever prevails would stack up well against Steele, who he said "is in the pocket of the right wing of his party and way out of touch with the needs, values and priorities of Maryland."

Steele has been heavily courted to run in recent months by both state and national GOP leaders, who argue that he represents the party's best chance to prevail in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1.

With Maryland's primary date still 15 months away, there were ample signs yesterday of an early coalescing around Steele's candidacy by the GOP establishment.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman called Steele's decision "great news for the people of Maryland."

Sen. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, released a statement calling Steele "a man of impeccable character and integrity" and asserting that "he would make an exceptional United States senator."

And Steele was aided yesterday by a spokesman from the NRSC, the arm of the party that recruits Senate candidates.

In the Democratic column, the race has already attracted two major candidates: Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume, both of Baltimore. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County is exploring a bid and has said he will announce his intentions next month.

Joshua Rales, a wealthy Montgomery businessman, is also considering entering the field. A. Robert Kaufman, a perennial candidate from Baltimore, has joined the race.

Steele did not provide a specific timetable for deciding on his candidacy. There was some confusion yesterday about one aspect of Steele's activities: fundraising.

Asked by a reporter if he plans to start raising money for a Senate bid, Steele replied "absolutely," adding: "That's very much a part of this effort as well."

Federal Election Commission guidelines, however, prohibit those who are "testing the waters" from raising more than is "reasonably" needed to cover such costs as polling and traveling. Candidates who plan to start fundraising in earnest are required to register a campaign committee with the FEC.

Dan Ronayne, the NRSC spokesman who was assisting Steele yesterday, said one goal Steele has for his exploratory bid is "getting a handle on how much it will cost to run a competitive campaign."

If Steele moves forward with a Senate bid, Ehrlich will be required to find a new running mate next year. Steele said he will be very committed to Ehrlich's reelection, regardless of what office he is seeking himself.

"The governor's my homeboy," Steele said. "I'm always going to take care of my homeboy."

Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is looking to run on the Republican ticket for the seat of Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D).