There has been a reliable stagecraft to any news conference featuring Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. over the past three years:
Ehrlich (R) steps before a bank of cameras to take questions. Just over his right shoulder, his tall, impeccably dressed lieutenant governor, Michael S. Steele, hovers silently to lend support and fill out the television frame.
It's an image of diversity and teamwork that has helped make Ehrlich-Steele one of the more functional State House marriages in recent memory. But yesterday, as Steele set out on the first full day of his nascent campaign for U.S. Senate, that familiar stance was, for the first time, reversed.
At a news conference at a Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police lodge, it was Steele who stepped to center stage, with Ehrlich silent in the wings, as the Republican candidate for Senate began addressing questions about a litany of national issues. Most were topics Steele previously refused to entertain, or discussed only sparingly so as not to differ publicly with Ehrlich.
Steele offered frank responses, for instance, to questions about abortion, the war in Iraq, Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers and the flagging popularity of President Bush.
"I know individuals in my community have real concerns about this president," he said. "I'm sensitive to that. But George Bush isn't running for U.S. Senate in Maryland. Michael Steele is. I'm hoping they will look at me."
Many will be getting a first look now that Steele is stepping out of the shadows of the Ehrlich administration, and some may be surprised to learn that the two men differ on a number of politically charged issues -- most notably, abortion and capital punishment.
Ehrlich acknowledged as much Tuesday, after Steele announced his candidacy. "As lieutenant governor, his job description was to go with the program," Ehrlich said. "Now, Mike will go out there, and he'll have his own views."
Yesterday, Steele expressed several of those views, describing himself as a "pro-life Roman Catholic," a supporter of the Iraq war and a fan of the president's, even if he recognizes that Bush "has a numbers problem right now." He said he did not know enough about Miers to weigh in on her nomination but expressed hope that any Supreme Court justice would "respect the Constitution" and not legislate from the bench.
Steele echoed many of the themes of his Tuesday speech, saying he hopes to emphasize kitchen-table concerns, such as the availability of high-wage jobs. In short, Steele tried to strike a balance between his conservative views and the realities of politics in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2 to 1 and where a new poll shows Bush's support among blacks at 3 percent.
Democrats said they'd like nothing better than to ensure that voters are acquainted with Steele's views.
"What we've heard reinforces why so many people so close to President Bush support his campaign and urged him to run," said U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, one of six Democrats to announce campaigns for the seat being vacated by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D). Also in that race are former congressman Kweisi Mfume, forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren, U.S. history professor Allan J. Lichtman, philanthropist Joshua Rales and activist A. Robert Kaufman.
"Those are the issues we want to talk about, because constituents and voters want to talk about them," Cardin said.
For those drawn to Steele by his social stances, the Senate race is actually a time of renewed expectations. Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, said she had high hopes when Steele promised to champion the views of those who oppose the death penalty -- a position Steele credits to his religious convictions.
Henderson said she reached out to Steele when he first took office but received no response. "I think he's been pretty much muzzled by this administration," she said.
Similarly Douglas Stiegler, executive director of the socially conservative Family Protection Lobby, said he is hopeful that Steele will now "be more open to espousing his views and his issues as his own candidate. Before, he wasn't elected as an individual and had to reflect [Ehrlich's] views."
Signs were evident yesterday that Steele and Ehrlich, while pledging to maintain their friendship and run parallel campaigns, are starting down separate tracks.
Steele said he did not view their partnership as being over. "This is a transformation, not a separation," Steele said. "We will transform from Ehrlich-Steele to Ehrlich and Steele, Steele and Ehrlich."
Still, during yesterday's news conference, Steele took several questions from Baltimore Sun reporter David Nitkin, one of the two State House journalists Ehrlich declared off-limits for interviews. Ehrlich has held firm on the ban, even going to court to defend it in a lawsuit filed by the Sun.
When asked whether Steele had decided not to heed the ban, Steele smiled. "Ban? What ban? I never had a ban."