Two summers ago, Michael S. Steele was a Prince George's County lawyer who had failed the Maryland bar. He was $60,000 in debt and living on his retirement account as he tried to jump-start careers in business and politics.

Today, as Maryland's lieutenant governor, Steele is one of his party's highest-ranking African American elected officials, a designation that will bring him to the main stage of national politics Tuesday night as a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention.

Steele's journey from a floundering law practice to the podium at Madison Square Garden is the story of a deeply driven man who labored assiduously in the trenches of local Republican politics, doing favors and collecting them, then found himself in the right place when skillful maneuvering, and some critics say the calculus of racial politics, helped lift him onto the 2002 ticket with Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"The truth?" said Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.). "The truth is that the Republican Party needed an African American poster boy."

Steele and Ehrlich bristle at the assertion that he was cynically thrust onto the ticket for his skin color alone. Speaking to Maryland delegates at a Monday-morning caucus, Ehrlich called the Democratic Party "racist" in its treatment of African Americans.

"I saw a message coming out of the Democratic Convention," Ehrlich said. "If you happened to have black skin, you have to believe one way. You have to. Or you are a traitor to your race. Think about that," he said. "That's why it's so important that this lieutenant governor speak to this country."

Steele said he "doesn't have to justify my experience to anybody." And not all Democrats regard him as a Republican prop. Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, who has built a friendship with Steele despite significant political differences, said the lieutenant governor is far more.

"He is in many respects the embodiment of the hopes and aspirations of African Americans when it comes to political achievement," Mfume said. "He's not someone sitting at the kitchen table, hoping to get elected. He's there."

Tall, elegant and disarmingly direct, Steele, 45, put his stamp on the Maryland Republican Party in 2000, the year he took over as state chairman. His goal, he said, was to reach out to Maryland minorities who had conservative values but who had for too long made voting Democratic a habit -- people, in other words, like him.

Born on Andrews Air Force Base, Steele was one of two children raised in the District by a widowed laundress who worked for minimum wage rather than accept public assistance. A photo of President John F. Kennedy hung on the family's living room wall, alongside renderings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus. He cast his first presidential vote for Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Steele soon was drawn to the Republican Party, he has said, because "my mama raised me well. She provided me with a sense of an individual working hard and being responsible for his actions. As I grew older, I soon identified with the GOP."

Steele spent three years studying for the priesthood before heading to law school and joining a Washington firm, having passed the bar in Pennsylvania. He even had a brief stint before television cameras speaking for his sister, Monica Turner, and her then-husband, boxer Mike Tyson. At the same time, he was working his way up the party ranks in Prince George's County at a time when white Republicans were leaving the county in droves. Across Maryland, Republicans were not only outnumbered but also demoralized after years of perpetual defeat.

"We all know what it's like to walk in the desert for 40 years," Steele said Monday, recalling that period with his fellow convention delegates. "Heck, our desert had a desert."

Momentum started to shift when Steele joined a group that brought a successful court challenge against the legislative redistricting plan drawn up by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D). The new, court-ordered map helped the GOP pick up 10 seats in the legislature in 2002. Even more pivotal was the decision by Ehrlich, a telegenic congressman from Baltimore County, to give up a safe House seat to run for governor.

For a time, Ehrlich said he considered running solo, in part to emphasize that the lieutenant governor's office -- at the time occupied by his opponent, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend -- was a post with little functional value. Instead, he enlisted Steele. The two had traveled in the same small Republican circles, and he said he became convinced that Steele could make something of the job. The chemistry also was right.

Ehrlich's selection of Steele proved a striking counterpoint to Townsend's pick, Charles R. Larson -- a white, Republican, retired admiral with no prior political experience. It underscored Ehrlich's argument that it was the Democrats who were taking minorities for granted, not the GOP.

There's no question that, at a time when the nation is so narrowly divided between parties, the Republicans are trying to address their diversity deficit. In 2000, there were 3,724 African American Democrats elected to any office and 50 black Republicans.

Former Oklahoma congressman J.C. Watts, a prominent African American Republican, said Steele is prepared for the responsibilities and burdens that accompany the role.

"He's gone through all the appropriate apprenticeships to be a real party star," Watts said.

Steele said he is not intentionally positioning himself as the spokesman for black Republicans. But as he's traveled the nation for President Bush, he says that the role might be his destiny.

"I believe, practically speaking, that I can help the party reach back into the community that they left behind."

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, one of the Republican Party's highest-ranking black elected officials, said he "doesn't have to justify" his experience.