GOP Senate Hopeful Says Criticism Was a Joke

Republican Senate candidate Michael Steele on Wednesday called President Bush his "homeboy," reversed course on having the president campaign for him and said he was joking when he described his Republican affiliation as a scarlet letter.

The Maryland lieutenant governor, under fire for his comments, told WBAL radio that his remarks were supposed to be off the record with a handful of reporters. Instead, Steele's campaign confirmed Tuesday that he was the unnamed Senate candidate who had assailed the Bush administration and Republican-controlled Congress in a story in The Washington Post.

"I've been quoted as calling the president my homeboy, you know. And that's how I feel. ... It's a term of affection and respect for his leadership of our country in a difficult time," Steele, who is black, said in the radio interview.

The Post quoted the unnamed candidate as saying the GOP-controlled Congress should "just shut up and get something done," that the Iraq war "didn't work" and "we didn't prepare for the peace," that the response to Hurricane Katrina was "a monumental failure of government," and that "there's a palpable frustration right now in the country."

Steele also said he probably wouldn't want Bush campaigning for him in Maryland and that he considers his party affiliation a scarlet letter. The White House said Wednesday that Bush still is backing Steele in his Senate race.

Steele said Wednesday: "If the president wanted to come and help me in Maryland, he is more than welcome, because I'm not going to turn my back on a friend. I'm not gonna do that."

In the radio interview, Steele said he has been campaigning and traveling, and in the process getting a different perspective.

"We want to be very, very clear that I'm not trying to 'dis' the president. I'm not trying to distance myself from the president. I'm trying to show those lines where, you know what, I have a different perspective," he said.

Asked about the scarlet letter remark, Steele said: "So I was making a joke about the fact that in this political climate, in Maryland, being a Republican is like wearing a scarlet letter. That's all it is."

At the White House, Bush spokesman Tony Snow said the president understands what politics is about, "and he wants Michael Steele to be elected as senator."

Snow declined to say how the president responded when told what Steele had said. "I could, but I won't," Snow said. But he remarked dryly, "I think the comments have come to his attention."

Steele also told the listeners of "The Chip Franklin Show" that he made positive comments about Bush during the meeting that weren't reported, noting that unemployment among blacks is down and black homeownership is up.

He also said his independence makes him best suited for the job.

"The president doesn't want a sycophant in the United States Senate. He wants an honest broker for the people of Maryland. He doesn't want a 'yes' man. He wants someone who's going to be genuine in his approach to solving the problems. And that's me," Steele said.

In Maryland, Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich said Wednesday that Steele's independent streak makes him a good candidate.

"He speaks his mind. He's always going to speak his mind, which is why we have such a strong friendship," said Ehrlich, who faces a tough re-election this November. He added, "He's running a great campaign."

Asked whether he agreed with Steele, Ehrlich said, "I'm not going to get into any of that."

Snow noted that the president, the first lady, the vice president, the president's father and top White House political adviser Karl Rove have all campaigned for Steele.

"It's pretty clear that there's a commitment at this end to making sure that Michael Steele becomes the next U.S. senator from Maryland," Snow said. "And we look forward to working with him."