WASHINGTON – As Maryland Republican U.S. Senate candidate Michael Steele tries to broaden his appeal to voters to attract members of both parties in a traditionally Democratic state, something keeps getting in the way — the Republican Party.
To capture the seat held by retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., Steele, the state's lieutenant governor, must cut into the state's wide Democratic majority. Yet, to fund what is likely to be an expensive race, Steele needs to rely on some of the more conservative members of his own party, as well as the men at the top of the GOP — President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
The latest example is a private fundraiser Friday hosted by Republican stalwarts Jeffrey Weiss and Juleanna Glover-Weiss. Jeffrey Weiss has worked with the Republican National Committee and Glover-Weiss, a former press secretary to Vice President Dick Cheney, now works for the Ashcroft Group, a lobbying firm founded by former Attorney General John Ashcroft. The event, thrown by the campaign and Montgomery County Republican Party, was for "an exclusive" crowd of about 100 people.
Steele's conundrum is mirrored nationally as other federal candidates distance themselves from a president whose popularity is at just 36 percent according to the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll.
At a fundraiser last month, New Jersey state Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr., a Republican running against New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, didn't appear until 15 minutes after Cheney spoke, attributing his tardiness to traffic, according to published reports. And, according to the Associated Press, Minnesota GOP Senate candidate Mark Kennedy did not show up with Bush at a 3M Corp. plant near Minneapolis, but attended a fundraiser later.
In November, Steele did not attend Bush's speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, but they stood together at a $500,000 Baltimore fundraiser.
"They are distancing themselves yet at the same time they are more than happy to tap the White House ATM," said Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Committee.
This aloofness is likely a reflection of the diminishing number of Americans who look positively at the War in Iraq, some analysts said. About 57 percent of Americans think the Iraq War was a mistake, according to a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll.
"Some people are leaping off the ship, especially with respect to Iraq," said Ron Walters, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It's a pattern going on in a number of places where the president has been moving around trying to explain his policy in Iraq."
Steele, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has some natural appeal for Democrats. As a Catholic and former seminarian he opposes the death penalty and abortions. As the state's first black lieutenant governor, he's attractive to the Democrats' most reliable voting bloc — African Americans.
A report by a political consultant for the Democratic National Committee found Steele could attract 44 percent of black voters, the Washington Post reported.
Meanwhile, countering that for the Democrats, members of the Legislative Black Caucus Thursday asked for the firing of a communications director who, according to published reports, was involved with the 2000 election re-count in Florida.
Steele's strategy has been to, he has said, connect with voters early in the campaign and focus on issues later in the race, a plan that's left him mum on other touchy issues, including the war in Iraq.
"For most politicians one relates to the other," Walters said. "I just thought that that was not very wise.
And his roadmap to office has been the success of his boss, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, R-Md., who in 2002 became the state's first Republican governor since Spiro Agnew in 1967. If he wins, Steele would become the first Republican senator since Charles Mathias, who served from 1969 to 1987, when he retired and U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., defeated author and radio personality Linda Chavez.
Ehrlich managed to retain his Republican base, while attracting voters in Democratic suburbs that were neglected by his opponent, former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, analysts have said.
Republican money has been continuously flowing into Steele's campaign. Even before his October announcement, the National Republican Senatorial Committee gave $37,000 in two separate payments and Karl Rove, Bush's deputy chief of staff, raised $75,000 at a Washington fundraiser.
Since his announcement, Andrew Card, the recently-resigned former White House chief of staff, attended New York fundraiser March 8. The same evening, another fundraiser was held for Steele by Mallory Factor, a Bush "Ranger" who heads the Free Enterprise Fund, a D.C.-based lobbying group.
The fund recently joined Beckstead and Watts, a Nevada-based accounting firm, in suing the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, the five-member panel created through the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate reform act, claiming the legislation co-written by Sarbanes is unconstitutional because it sets excessive financial rules that hurt U.S. markets.
Assistance was also given by Ed Gillespie, a former Bush adviser and the former RNC chairman and head of Steele's finance committee. He hosted a fundraiser attended by Virginia Republican Sens. George Allen and John Warner and Marvin Bush, President Bush's younger brother.
Steele is considered the favorite in the September Republican primary, giving him the opportunity to focus on attracting Democratic voters.
He will face whoever emerges from a crowded Democratic field of seven candidates: U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Md.; ex-NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume; history professor Allan Lichtman; forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren; businessman Josh Rales; longtime activist A. Robert Kaufman; and former Baltimore County Executive Dennis Rasmussen. Attorney Kevin Zeese is running as an independent.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.