President Bush choppered into town Wednesday on behalf of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, leaving behind a fatter campaign treasury for Steele's U.S. Senate bid and demands from Democrats that Steele spell out where he stands on the president's agenda.
Bush made it a quick stop on his third fundraising event in as many days for 2006 Republican congressional candidates. He posed for photos with supporters who paid $5,000 and gave an approximately 15-minute pep talk to those and others who paid $125 for a "stand-up" lunch of stadium fare at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Baltimore Ravens play.
The total take should be about $500,000, said campaign spokesman Leonardo Alcivar, who quickly added that it was inappropriate to compare it with fundraising events Bush has done for candidates in the region that raised much more money.
For instance, Bush pulled in more than $2 million for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore at a McLean event this past summer, and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. raised about $1.8 million at an event with the president during Ehrlich's successful 2002 gubernatorial campaign. But Alcivar noted that those events came in the thick of an election -- Steele's is more than 11 months away -- and with different fundraising rules from those that govern a federal campaign.
"We're happy with both the dollar amount of contributions we received and the number of attendees," said Alcivar, who added that about 800 tickets were sold, although far fewer people were at the lunchtime event.
The president's visit illustrated both the importance the national Republican Party places on Steele's bid to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and the hazard for Steele in identifying too much with the Bush administration.
Bush did not win the state in either of his presidential campaigns -- Ehrlich advised him in 2004 that he would be better off spending time elsewhere -- and a recent poll conducted for the Baltimore Sun put his approval rating in the state at 33 percent. Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1 in Maryland.
Steele has seemed cognizant of those facts in both major appearances of his young campaign: He did not utter the word "Republican" in his campaign announcement or at Wednesday's event. In his 21/2-minute introduction of the president, Steele delivered a nonpartisan appeal for himself, without words of praise for Bush or his accomplishments.
"Maryland's next senator must be strong enough to build a bridge that brings us together, crossing the lines that for too long have divided us by party, class and race," Steele said. "I will be that bridge, I will be that senator."
"As Maryland builds the bridge, you might as well make it a Steele bridge," Bush said.
In praising Steele, Bush noted the lieutenant governor's humble beginnings and mentioned that Steele's mother, Maebell, worked in a laundromat to support her children. "She said she made her home rich in character, rich in turning hope into action," Bush said. "That's the kind of fella you want in the United States Senate representing you, somebody raised in that kind of way."
Maryland Democrats were more interested in the part of the speech in which Bush defended the war in Iraq, dismissed calls for a timetable for troop withdrawals and said he needed Steele in the Senate to support him.
"It's going to be important for this important state to have a United States senator who understands the stakes," Bush said. "And Michael Steele understands the duty of protecting the American people."
Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman criticized the event. "We cannot afford to give President Bush another vote in the U.S. Senate for his dangerous, out-of-touch agenda," Lierman said in a party news release.
Two of Steele's Democratic competitors picked up that theme. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin's campaign said, "George Bush believes that Steele will be a rubber stamp for the Bush agenda." And former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume said Bush refuses to acknowledge that the war "is a failed policy and we need to withdraw our troops from Iraq by the end of 2006."
Steele has not spoken extensively about Iraq. Alcivar said Steele believes that with recent progress, such as elections, "it is time for Iraqis to accept greater responsibilities" for security. That will allow for "the beginnings of a discussion of how best to bring about an exit strategy" for U.S. troops.
Steele's political mentor, Ehrlich, was not at the fundraiser. He accompanied Bush to an earlier address at the U.S. Naval Academy and then attended a state Board of Public Works meeting. Ehrlich said it was better that he not attend the fundraiser. "The attention needs to be on Mike," he said. "When I'm there, the attention is split."
Staff writers Ann E. Marimow and Matthew Mosk and Metro researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.