BALTIMORE – President Bush on Wednesday called Lt. Gov. Michael Steele a decent and honorable man who would stand firm in the fight against terror and who would "help heal racial wounds" in Maryland if he won next year's race for the U.S. Senate.
The president spoke at a $125-a-head Steele fund-raiser at midday, swooping down to Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium in a detail of helicopters after delivering a morning speech on terrorism at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
"As Maryland builds a bridge, you might as well make it a Steele bridge," Bush said.
Outside the stadium, about 40 protesters organized by Progressive Maryland, who bill themselves as a grassroots advocacy group, gathered in a parking lot.
Police kept the group to the outskirts of the stadium property, separated from the event by fences, barricades and two sets of train tracks.
Noise from the highway overhead threatened to drown out speakers from the group and local unions as they called Steele to task for what they say is the Ehrlich administration's indifference to the problems of poor Marylanders, and for associating himself with Bush.
Steele's last major fund-raiser, with Bush adviser Karl Rove in July, drew criticism from many Democrats who said it showed Steele's alliance with the Bush administration's policies. Wednesday's event is drawing similar fire.
The doubts stem from Bush's declining poll numbers and an election eve campaign stop this year where Bush appeared with Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate, Jerry Kilgore, only to have Kilgore lose decisively to Democratic rival Tim Kaine. Only 33 percent of Marylanders approve of the president, according to a recent poll by The Sun of Baltimore.
Leonardo Alcivar, Steele's campaign spokesman, dismissed such concerns in an earlier interview.
"The lieutenant governor and the president diverge on some important issues, and at the end of the day, it's Michael Steele whose name will be on the ballot box, and not the president's," Alcivar said.
Others at the fund-raiser didn't think Bush's support would harm Steele's chances, particularly with the event expected to raise at least $500,000.
"Who's going to remember in a year?" asked Doni Glover, a political analyst and the publisher of the Baltimore-based political news site www.bmorenews.com.
While voters would forget the president's appearance by Election Day, Steele needed the money the president would help raise, including the $5,000 donations for photo opportunities with the president, Glover said.
While those inside the stadium were able to pay to get a peek at the president, outside Dorothy Bryant, of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said she came to protest "on behalf of simple working class people . . . who are not a part of Steele's agenda."
Steele introduced the president in a stadium lounge crowded with more than 400 supporters.
"Mr. President, your presence here today sends a very strong signal that Maryland welcomes an open dialogue about how we can overcome the challenges of this new century," Steele said.
"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.
Bush told Steele's supporters he had no doubt the lieutenant governor would win.
"Michael Steele is the right man for the United States Senate," Bush said. "He's a decent man, he's an honorable man, he's a family man. Those are the kind of traits you want when you elect someone to the United States Senate."
Bush touted Maryland's low unemployment rate as an example of the Ehrlich administration's good policies and praised Steele's support of small business owners.
"I wish I could report to you that we weren't at war. But we are," he said.
"The enemy has declared that Iraq is a central front in the war on terror," Bush said. With enemies that held a totalitarian view of the world, the only thing for the U.S. to do was stay on the offensive, he said.
Steele understands the need to keep a firm resolve in the face of such enemies, Bush said.
"We're helping Iraq develop a democracy," Bush said, echoing themes from his earlier talk at the Naval Academy. In two and a half years, Iraq had gone from a brutal dictatorship to free elections, he said. "Democracy is on the move. A free society is emerging."
In his earlier speech, Bush rejected calls for a troop withdrawal timetable. However, Steele told The Sun recently that he supports development of an exit strategy.
Alcivar did not return several messages seeking comment.
Gail Gibson, a stadium neighbor and neophyte protestor, said she was compelled to add her voice after seeing Bush's Academy speech that morning.
"I've never done this before in my life," she said, "but I listened to a statement that as long as he's president he's going to keep troops in Iraq. I had to come down. It makes me feel I've actually done something."
Public support for the war has plummeted in the past few months, along with Bush's approval ratings, national polls show.
Steele faces little competition for his party's nomination from fellow Republican candidates Thomas Hampton of Severna Park and Corrogan Vaughn of Baltimore, neither of whom have held public office.
The Democratic field is far wider, including Rep. Ben Cardin, former Rep. Kweisi Mfume and socialist activist Bob Kaufman, all from Baltimore; history professor Allan Lichtman and forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren, both of Bethesda; and businessman Joshua Rales of Potomac.
Anti-war activist Kevin Zeese of Takoma Park is the lone independent candidate.
"Character matters more than anything else," Bush said. "Michael Steele will make a senator that brings pride to the state of Maryland and I am proud to stand with him."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.