Rove's role in fundraiser for Steele sparks debate

Sun Staff

WASHINGTON - Karl Rove might be embroiled in the scandal surrounding the leaked identity of a CIA operative, but he still has time to entice campaign donors to open their checkbooks - and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is taking advantage.

Last night, Rove headlined a fundraiser for Steele, an expected candidate for U.S. Senate in 2006. Rove's presence at the closed-door event at the National Republican Senatorial Committee headquarters sent Democrats into a frenzy. They criticized Steele for allying with the Republican presidential adviser and choosing quick campaign cash - he raised an estimated $75,000 from about 60 contributors, a spokesman said - over Maryland values.

About 30 protesters gathered outside the Ronald Reagan Republican Center as Rove drove himself to the event in a blue-gray Jaguar and the lieutenant governor arrived in his state vehicle. Neither spoke to reporters waiting outside.

"I just think that's a reflection of the arrogance of Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lieutenant Governor Steele that they, knowing what's happening with the coverup and illegal actions taken by Mr. Rove, that they would still go ahead with this," Terry Lierman, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, said earlier in the day.

The full fallout from Rove's involvement in the disclosure of the identity of agent Valerie Plame to journalists remains to be seen. Still, Steele's decision to link arms with Rove so publicly highlights a broader dilemma he will face as a Republican candidate in Maryland, where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans nearly two to one.

Challenge for GOP

Steele must appeal to voters across the ideological spectrum to win the seat being vacated by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat. But as he uses Rove and the White House to raise money and his political profile, he will likely mobilize his opponents, who will do all they can to connect Steele with President Bush's sagging approval ratings.

Ronald Walters, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, said it would have been wise for Steele to get out of the Rove event. Walters said Steele won't pick up crossover Democratic votes by "aligning himself with a very conservative administration."

"I don't think he wins anything by being so public with Karl Rove," Walters said. "And I think it's very likely he could lose some votes from people who could potentially support him."

Recent polls indicate that the public has mixed feelings about Rove. In a national survey of 1,006 adults between July 22 and 24 by CNN/USA Today/Gallup, 49 percent of respondents said Rove should resign from the Bush administration, and 31 percent said he should not. The other 20 percent had no opinion.

Maryland Republican Party Chairman John M. Kane did not agree that Rove would damage Steele. He called the White House deputy chief of staff's involvement in Steele's campaign "great news for Maryland Republicans" in a statement provided by a spokeswoman.

Dan Ronayne, a spokesman for Steele's exploratory committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Steele will "enjoy the full support of the White House" if he decides to run. He called the Democrats' flood of e-mails to the media condemning Steele for appearing with Rove (even Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, issued a statement yesterday) a matter of "partisan squawking."

"The lieutenant governor appreciates Mr. Rove's assistance and is honored that he is lending him a hand as he looks to decide if this race makes sense for himself and his family," Ronayne said.

With its Democratic leanings, Maryland will provide a challenge for Steele, who in November 2002 became the first African-American elected to statewide office. Democrats seeking the seat include U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore and Kweisi Mfume, former president and chief executive of the national NAACP. Socialist and community activist A. Robert Kaufman is also running.

Raising money

Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor for the Cook Political Report, said there's one important reason for Steele to take advantage of his relationship with Rove: money. "Steele can't raise enough money in Maryland to fund this race," she said. "He's going to have to raise it all over the country."

But Josh White, political director of the Maryland Democratic Party, said the reported $75,000 take last night was a "lukewarm response" to Steele's foray into the world of D.C. fundraising.

The protest was organized by Progressive Maryland, a coalition of labor, faith-based and community groups that lobbies for liberal causes. They waved signs bearing messages such as "Steele takes traitors' money" and "Tarnished Steele."

Thomas F. Schaller, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, predicted that the Rove flap will be forgotten. What the Democrats, and others, should take away from Rove's participation, however, is a stern warning.

"The White House and the Republican National Committee want to win this seat and are putting their resources behind it," Schaller said. "That fact is true even if there is no Karl Rove, even if there isn't a Karl Rove fundraiser."

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