Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has always had policy differences with his running mate and political partner, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele -- most notably over the death penalty and abortion.
But during five months on the campaign trail in 2002 and the subsequent three years in office, those differences have rarely, if ever, come between them.
Now, as they head into the 2006 campaign season on separate tracks -- with Ehrlich seeking reelection and Steele running for the U.S. Senate -- a more complicated dynamic has developed, with the state's two most prominent Republicans not nearly as in sync as previously believed.
For instance, the two are pursuing different approaches to improving pensions for the state's teachers, with Steele reaching out in recent weeks to a powerful union that has had rocky relations with Ehrlich.
Also, Steele has distanced himself from administration actions that could annoy black voters -- a crucial constituency for him in the 2006 election. Those actions include Ehrlich's public denunciations of multiculturalism and a recent decision affecting Morgan State University, one of Maryland's historically black universities.
Steele said in an interview that the differences are no sign of "separation, of a big fight, or of any animosity."
"In this campaign, there will be issues where we disagree," Steele said. "We'll talk about that. Give each other a heads-up. But I am charting my own course."
Greg Massoni, Ehrlich's press secretary, said that there have been moments during the governor's tenure when the two have disagreed but that those disagreements have never strained their relationship. "It's widely known there are areas where they're not on the same page," Massoni said. "I don't see that as any different than has always been the case."
Any tension between the two would be in keeping with a classic political storyline for executives and former running mates: President Bill Clinton and 2000 Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, for instance, or Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening and 2002 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
"In these circumstances, some disagreement is going to be inevitable and is to be expected," said James G. Gimpel, a politics professor at the University of Maryland at College Park. "That's because Mike Steele has to establish his own political identity and come out from behind the governor's shadow."
That is especially true as Steele employs an electoral strategy that is different from Ehrlich's. Steele, the first black person elected statewide, has said his candidacy could draw more black voters to the Republican Party.
"The nice thing, as far as both are concerned, is that they never hide the fact that they differ on some issues," said Republican analyst Carol Hirschberg. "And they seem to respect each other's views."
That has been the case as regards the death penalty. Despite Steele's well-known opposition to capital punishment, grounded in his religious views, he remained silent when Ehrlich signed his first death warrant.
Steele's opposition to abortion and Ehrlich's support for some abortion rights have rarely come up in their three years in office.
But on such issues as teacher pensions and the debate over an MBA program at Morgan State, Steele has not been so quiet. Three weeks before formally announcing his Senate bid, Steele met with President Patricia A. Foerster of the Maryland State Teachers Association to discuss pensions.
"He reached out to us," Foerster said. "Considering the silence from this administration for three years, we were surprised."
An Ehrlich spokesman said the governor has yet to settle on an approach to addressing what the union says is the worst-rated pension system in the country. But Steele confirmed that he has pressed the issue with the governor. He said he has suggested that Ehrlich consider devoting lottery revenue to bolster the amount teachers would receive upon retirement. But he has not received an answer.
"Yeah, this one is a priority for me," Steele said. "But I serve at the pleasure of the governor. I don't know what his priority is just yet."
The two have disagreed on a recent decision by the Maryland Higher Education Commission to allow Towson University to offer a graduate business program. Morgan State's president has argued that Towson would duplicate what his Baltimore school offers. The historically black university relies on the MBA program and similar offerings to draw white students to the campus.
Ehrlich has said he "respects" the decision and is not opposed to having two MBA programs but wants to study ways to enhance Morgan State's offerings.
Steele credits the governor with recognizing Morgan State's needs, but the lieutenant governor said he was "very disappointed" about the decision to bring an MBA program to Towson.
"That's the beauty of our partnership. I'm able to express my opinions, and I've shared mine with the governor," Steele said.
At times, Steele's support for Ehrlich's positions has come back to bite the lieutenant governor.
Steele drew significant criticism, for instance, after saying he was not troubled by Ehrlich's decision to hold a fundraiser at a country club that had no black members. Three weeks later, Steele revised his position, saying he should not have been so flippant. A year earlier, he stayed silent when Ehrlich publicly declared multiculturalism to be "crap."
The issue that has drawn the most intense reaction from Ehrlich's top aides, though, came after an off-hand remark that Steele made on the campaign trail last month.
During a news conference, Steele took several questions from reporter David Nitkin, one of two Baltimore Sun journalists Ehrlich has declared off-limits for interviews. Ehrlich has held firm on the ban, even going to court to defend it against a lawsuit filed by the Sun.
Steele was asked whether he had decided to ignore the ban. He replied: "Ban? What ban? I never had a ban."
That brought an angry call from a top Ehrlich aide, according to one administration official, who asked not to be named because the governor's press office had not authorized the interview. Steele said he heard from the governor directly.
"Oh, I did get feedback on it," Steele said with a chuckle. "But I'm a big boy. I'm my own man. I have my own opinions. The governor and I talked about it. And I made it very clear to him that I understand where his head is."
That they disagreed, Steele said, is not cause for hand-wringing. To the contrary, he said, it is why the partnership works.
"The governor doesn't want yes men and sycophants around him," Steele said. "He wants arguments pro and con on any decision he has to consider. He looks to me to fulfill that role, and I have."