Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele formally launched his bid for U.S. Senate yesterday, standing on his own for the first time since a successful political partnership with Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. catapulted him to statewide office.
With Gov. Ehrlich (R) sitting in the front row and a crowd of supporters cheering in a Prince George's Community College field house, Steele kicked off what promises to be a bruising 2006 campaign for the seat being vacated by five-term Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D).
Steele delivered a rousing populist speech that never mentioned his Republican Party affiliation and appeared to take swipes at both parties, including the same Washington insiders who urged him to enter the race and financed his exploratory committee.
The first black to win statewide office in Maryland, Steele, 47, promised that he would make history again by being a bridge -- "a bridge of steel" -- between Democrats and Republicans, between Capitol Hill and Main Street.
"A bridge that not only brings both parties together but, more importantly, brings all of us closer to one another," he said.
Steele described Washington as a city in paralysis, where politicians "blame each other for our lack of a long-term energy policy" and where, "for too long, one party worried more about prices in the stock market than prices in the corner market."
It was a pox-on-both-your-houses approach, blaming Democrats for preaching reconciliation "at the same time they practiced division."
If the speech is any indication, Steele's campaign will avoid highlighting his social conservatism and his longtime ties to national Republican politics and politicians -- he is antiabortion, has served on the Republican National Committee's executive committee, and his first fundraiser was headlined by White House adviser Karl Rove.
Instead, Steele gave the first glimpse of the delicate line he will attempt to tread as he seeks to marshal support in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans on voter rolls by a margin of nearly 2 to 1 and where a new poll shows President Bush's support among blacks at just 3 percent.
Republicans are seeing Steele as their best hope in years for a Senate seat. But even among Ehrlich loyalists, there were mixed views about Steele's ability to pull it off.
"He would need a perfect storm," said Richard E. Vatz, a professor at Towson University.
"An uphill battle," said Richard Hug, Ehrlich's chief fundraiser.
Ehrlich, too, has said he believes Steele will need to work hard to win over voters in a state that has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since Charles McC. Mathias Jr. left office in 1987.
"My advice has been, if you think you can win, go for it," Ehrlich said yesterday. "Today, what you saw was a confident, successful man going for it."
Steele already has defied long odds in Maryland when, as the chairman of the state Republican Party, he was tapped as Ehrlich's running mate in the 2002 gubernatorial race. Theirs became the first GOP team to capture the state's top two elected offices in nearly four decades.
During the campaign, Steele proved an able complement to Ehrlich, in that he connected with African Americans and social conservatives, two constituencies that might not have found Ehrlich's moderate positions appealing.
Still unclear is how Steele will be received by voters when on his own. An independent poll released by Gonzales Research and Marketing this week shows him trailing Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore. But it also shows him slightly ahead of another well-known Democratic contender, former congressman and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume.
To succeed, Steele's backers say, he will need to count on an unlikely blend of grass-roots support from minorities who are disenchanted with the Democratic Party and financing from GOP donors who are mostly white and conservative.
Derek Walker, a Democratic Party spokesman who watched yesterday's event, called Steele's speech "an intuitive approach to campaigning in Maryland. Right now, institutional Washington is at an all-time low in terms of ethics and public opinion."
Since forming an exploratory committee in June, Steele has raised more than $418,000. That includes $10,000 apiece from political action committees affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.). Dole heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has pumped $37,000 into Steele's campaign.
Republicans say the lieutenant governor has effectively used his state office to open a dialogue with minority business executives and church leaders who could help draw votes from what is arguably the Democratic Party's most loyal constituency. And he could capitalize on bitterness that many black leaders have felt since 2002, when Democrats passed up a chance to put a black candidate on the statewide ticket.
But Steele's social views are far different from Ehrlich's, and polls show his opposition to abortion and to the death penalty -- both stances he says are derived from his Catholic faith -- are unpopular in Maryland.
Tall, elegant and disarmingly direct, Steele lives in Largo, where he climbed the Republican Party ladder, serving as chairman of the Prince George's County GOP in the 1990s. He ran unsuccessfully for the party's nomination as comptroller in 1998.
The grandson of sharecroppers whose father died an alcoholic and whose stepfather drove a taxi, Steele directed the first portion of his speech to his mother, Maebell Turner, who watched from the front row.
"My mom worked 45 years in a laundromat making minimum wage and still managed to put her kids through parochial school," he said. "She never took a penny of public assistance because, as she put it, she didn't want government raising her kids."
Steele graduated from Archbishop Carroll High School, a D.C. Catholic school, determined to enter the priesthood. After college, he wore the white robe of an Augustinian monk for about a year.
During that time, "I discerned and I believe God revealed to me" that the priesthood was not his calling, Steele said in a 2002 interview. He earned a law degree at Georgetown University in 1991.
State and national GOP leaders recruited Steele, and he is not expected to have any significant opposition in the party primary.
In addition to Cardin and Mfume, Democrats in the race include forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren, American history professor Allan J. Lichtman, philanthropist Joshua Rales and socialist A. Robert Kaufman. Third-party candidate Kevin Zeese is also running.