Maryland underdog runs from GOP agenda

The Republican Senate hopeful distances himself from the No Child Left Behind law and the Iraq war.

Running in a state where Democrats outnumber Republican voters nearly 2 to 1, GOP Senate hopeful Michael Steele enlisted a puppy to boost his campaign as a "different kind of politician."

With a chirpy tone more typical of a cellphone ad than a political spot, Maryland's lieutenant governor pops up on the screen: "Hey, me again, Michael Steele."

"Soon your TV will be jammed with negative ads from the Washington crowd. Grainy pictures and spooky music saying, 'Steele hates puppies' – and worse. For the record, I love puppies. [Cue the Boston terrier.] And I think you deserve better – some real ideas for a change."

The pup shows up again in a second Steele ad, this time growling to charges from, well, a grainy attack ad with spooky music from his rival, Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D) of Maryland, who is leading in all recent polls by a range of 6 to 15 percent. Nowhere in either Steele ad is there a mention of the Republican Party or its standard bearer, President Bush.

That's the key to running as a Republican in a blue state in the 2006 elections: Run away from the White House and the party, and run as an independent voice. At least in Maryland, the strategy is keeping this race within the range of the possible for the GOP underdog.

"Democrats are a little bit worried about this race," says Jennifer Duffy, who handicaps Senate races for the Cook Political Report. "Given the [political] environment, given how blue the state is, that they haven't put it away is troubling to Democrats," she adds.

One of three prominent black Republicans in national races, Steele hopes to make inroads in what has been a keystone in the Democratic base.

A master legislator, 10-term representative Cardin is running on his ability to work across party lines on pension reform, healthcare, and taxes. Cardin often links Steele to President Bush, who is especially unpopular in Maryland.

"I don't know how you change the direction of America when you agree with the president on so many issues," said Cardin at a candidates forum sponsored by the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce on Friday.

After the Hagerstown event – only the second time the candidates have appeared together in this campaign – Steele told reporters that he's tired of having to "justify everything the administration does or doesn't do.... I'm not going to stand here and be a whipping boy for the Republican Party," he added.

In a TV ad, Steele cites problems with both parties. On education: Republicans "built a system that teaches to a test" – a reference to President Bush's No Child Left Behind law. On the economy: "Some Republicans forget folks still climbing that ladder," while Democrats would "just raise their taxes."

But a wildcard in the race is how enthusiastically black voters will turn out for Democrats.

To get to the general election, Cardin defeated former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who led the NAACP for nine years. Had Mr. Mfume won the Sept. 12 primary, it would have set up the first-ever US Senate race involving two black leaders. His defeat prompted some black supporters to say that the state's Democratic establishment takes African-American voters for granted.

In Hagerstown, Steele describes himself as part of "the post-civil rights generation." "You know how to get to the lunch counter, now it's how to own the diner," he told the nearly all-white audience.

He says it hasn't been easy running as a black Republican, citing racial ugliness around the campaign, including jibes that he is a "token" or "Uncle Tom."

But analysts say that national issues will probably trump the appeal Steele is making to the state's staunchest Democrats. "This election has been nationalized. The war is playing very strongly in Maryland, and black voters are the strongest opponents to it," says Ronald Walters, a professor at the University of Maryland who writes on race and politics.

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