Republican Michael Steele's changing remarks about President Bush — from criticism to calling him his "homeboy" — left Maryland voters wondering what are the Senate candidate's true views.

"I can't tell what Steele thinks about Bush," Michael Jackson, 45, a cook from Annapolis, Md., said Thursday. "Does he like Bush? Not like Bush? I don't know," said Jackson, a Democrat who supports the president.

Steele, the state's lieutenant governor and one of a handful of black Republicans running statewide for a major office, has confused some voters with his dichotomous comments this week.

At a lunch with reporters Monday in Washington, Steele criticized Bush for his handling of the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, said he probably wouldn't want the president campaigning for him in Maryland and equated his Republican affiliation with the scarlet letter.

The Washington Post reported Steele's comments without naming him, but Steele's campaign acknowledged Tuesday that he was the GOP Senate candidate.

Steele then went on a talk show on WBAL-AM in Baltimore to say he is "proud to be a Republican" and called Bush his "homeboy." He took back his statement about the president campaigning for him and described himself as an independent Republican who's willing to disagree with the Bush administration.

"People think, well, you're running away from the president. Absolutely not," Steele said.

The contradictory remarks left some voters wondering about Steele's strategy. Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 in Maryland, which is 29 percent black. The state hasn't sent a Republican to the Senate since Charles McC. Mathias in 1980.

Victoria Sonnae, a black Democrat from Brooklyn, Md., said Steele's radio comments sounded phony to her, particularly his description of Bush as his "homeboy."

"Couldn't he say, 'He's my friend?' Why did he have to say 'homeboy?' It's like he wanted to sound more black or hip or something," said Sonnae, 43.

Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman, a Maryland native and one of the top GOP officials who recruited Steele, said Thursday that dissenting views within the party can be healthy, citing Steele's views in opposition to the administration on Katrina and the Iraq war.

"He's a good friend of mine," Mehlman said in an interview in Atlanta, after addressing the National Urban League. "The president wants him to win, I want him to win. His comments were taken out of context.

Steele told WBAL radio that his independent streak makes him a good candidate and that's he's criticized Bush before.

"I've always been independent in my thoughts. My momma raised me that way," Steele said.

Jean Ford, who is black, said Steele's independence has impressed her and she'll probably vote for him.

"He's a man. He stands on his own," said Ford, 55, of Annapolis. "He's going to say what he's going to say. Yes, indeed, I would vote for him."