Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele used his speaking slot at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday night to redefine the movement for civil rights in today's terms.

"What truly defines the civil rights challenge today isn't whether you can get a seat at the lunch counter," Steele said. "It's whether you can own that lunch counter."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. watched Steele's speech from a crowded spot on the convention floor, pumping his fist as the lieutenant governor drew cheers. Ehrlich called the moment a "point of pride" that transcended the spat he sparked with Democrats on Monday when he attacked the party for claiming to be the only one suitable for African Americans.

Though Steele's speech was written before the flap, it touched on that theme, offering a sort of quick, historical defense of the GOP's record on civil rights.

He noted that Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent troops to desegregate Little Rock schools and that Senate Republicans opposed segregationist southern Democrats to help pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

He took some gentle swipes at John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, but mostly he devoted his time to explaining why President Bush understands the new civil rights struggle.

Bush "knows that too many of our children are headed for the state pen instead of Penn State," Steele said. "He knows that the soft bigotry of low expectations is today's version of blocking the entrance to the schoolhouse door."

Steele's speech kept mostly to familiar themes that strived for the kind of soaring oratory that some Maryland Republicans hoped would lead to comparisons to Illinois Democrat Barak Obama.

Aware of the potential for such a comparison, Steele dropped a line into the speech in which he said he "had planned to give a moving defense of the conservative principles of the Republican Party tonight. But there was only one problem: Barak Obama gave it last month at the Democratic convention."

Ehrlich Team Comes Through

New York City proved to be fertile ground for Gov. Ehrlich to raise some cash.

The governor took in $250,000 over quesadillas and cocktails for 140 supporters Monday night at BLT Fish, a downtown restaurant owned by a friend, Michael Dana. The event's other host was Ken Barrett, who, like many of the guests, played football with Ehrlich at Princeton.

Ehrlich noted that first lady Kendel Ehrlich has referred to the teammates as "a cult" because they have remained so close over the years. Standing on a velvet sofa in the upscale loft, Ehrlich urged business executives in the crowd to relocate to Maryland, promising it would be worth it.

"If you come to Maryland, you'll find the regulatory environment is going to be welcoming, the tort environment will be more welcoming, and we're not going to be raising your taxes," the governor said.

His message probably pleased lobbyists and executives in the audience, many representing companies already doing business in the state. Those companies include Verizon, which Budget Secretary Chip DiPaula Jr., noted was the second-largest private-sector employer in the state. (Johns Hopkins University is the largest, he said.)

Ehrlich also took a moment to point out that his fundraising has been "incredibly strong." He said that because there were reporters in the room, he would not give out exact numbers, only describing the amount as "a lot of money."

Later, Ehrlich was willing to clarify, saying he has between $3.5 million and $4 million in the bank.

Self-Images for Sale

Harnessing the vast energy of political egos for charity, Dominion, the parent company of Virginia Power, recently invited Republican members of Virginia's congressional delegation to paint self-portraits. The results were auctioned Tuesday at Sotheby's.

The rules were simple. Each participant was given a canvas -- and told to fill it.

Surely, the assignment was not difficult for Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), an accomplished amateur painter and collector. (He also was once married to Catherine Mellon, daughter of Paul Mellon, the philanthropist and major patron of the arts.)

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) found a way out, although not one that exactly followed the rules. He had his 13-year-old son, middle-schooler Forrest, paint a picture of his father against a red, white and blue background.

Others weren't so lucky. David Marin, a spokesman for Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), said the congressman struggled. "He found it a humbling experience," Marin said.

No word from Sotheby's or Dominion on how the bidding went.