Saying he is "ready to step up and take the challenge" of higher office, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele announced yesterday that he will begin raising money in anticipation of running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes.
Steele sounded much like a candidate when he unveiled an exploratory campaign committee during a morning conference call coordinated by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate recruitment arm of the national Republican Party, headed by North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
"The question is, are you prepared to lead when the time comes for leadership?" he said.
Considered his party's best hope to pick up a Senate seat it has not held for two decades, Steele and his candidacy would nonetheless represent a gamble for the state GOP.
He has never been elected to office on his own, as lieutenant governors in Maryland are selected as part of a ticket with a governor. Steele was defeated in his only other race, losing a 1998 Republican primary for comptroller.
And it remains unclear whether Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s election in 2002 represented a significant rightward shift in the Maryland political climate. Last year, President Bush garnered 43 percent of the vote in Maryland, compared with 55 percent for John F. Kerry - making Maryland the sixth best-performing state for the Democratic nominee.
But national Republicans are impressed with Steele's stature, symbolism and personal story. He is one of a handful of statewide African-American Republican politicians in the country and has participated in the national party's outreach efforts to minority groups.
Maryland has the highest concentration of black voters outside the Deep South, but even if Steele were to gain significantly more of their support than Ehrlich did, he would still face difficult prospects, said Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
If Steele were to take 20 percent of the black vote - compared with Ehrlich's 13 percent - he would still have to gain the support of six in 10 white voters, a tall order, Schaller said.
"The real problem for him is he is very conservative, and he is running in a very liberal state. Mr. Ehrlich is more center-right than he is," Schaller said. "He has a harder coalition to build for two reasons. One, he has less political standing and connections to a constituency than Ehrlich did, and two, he is more ideologically conservative than Ehrlich is."
The creation of an exploratory committee had been expected for weeks, as national and state Republicans repeatedly contacted Steele, urging him to run. He would not specify when he might formally declare his candidacy, or who the members of his committee were.
He said he would spend the next several weeks listening to state residents. "My momma taught me a long time ago, if you are going to do something, first thing you do is shut up and listen," Steele said.
Fund-raising would begin immediately as a way to determine whether Marylanders support his possible candidacy, he said. Some political strategists have said a competitive bid could cost $15 million or more.
If the lieutenant governor entered the race, Ehrlich would lose a popular running mate who provided a boost to an underdog candidacy three years ago, becoming Maryland's first black statewide elected leader.
"With regard to the exploratory committee, Lt. Gov. Steele has the governor's full support as a colleague and personal friend," said Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Ehrlich.
Steele said he was not troubled by the prospect of breaking up a successful team that brought Republicans into the Maryland governorship for the first time since 1969, when Spiro T. Agnew resigned before becoming vice president.
"The governor is my homeboy," Steele said. "I always, regardless of what I am doing, am going to take care of my homeboy. ... It will be Ehrlich and Steele. This is a partnership that doesn't end and die if one of us changes and does something else."
The state Democratic Party immediately pounced on Steele's announcement, saying in a statement that he has proved ineffective as lieutenant governor and in previous state and local party positions. Steele has not completed a review of the Maryland death penalty as promised, the Democratic Party said, or fulfilled other pledges to help reform the troubled juvenile justice system.
"As lieutenant governor, Michael Steele has done a good job of heading up commissions that go nowhere," said Josh White, political director of the Maryland Democratic Party. "Even he couldn't describe why he is prepared to be U.S. senator."
But Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip from Calvert County, said Steele has been embraced by state residents.
"In the past, the Senate president has called him an Uncle Tom; The Baltimore Sun editorialists said he brings nothing to the office other than the color of his skin, and now this vitriolic attack by the state party," O'Donnell said.
"It's not surprising, but it seems to me that United States Senate candidates in both parties who are African-American are getting that treatment these days," he said in a reference to Kweisi Mfume, the Democrat who has been accused of fostering a climate of sexual harassment while president of the national NAACP, allegations that he denies.
Other Democrats seeking the nomination include Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and socialist A. Robert Kaufman, who is recovering from stab wounds received this week in an apparent landlord-tenant dispute.
An April poll for The Sun showed Cardin leading Steele 41 to 37 percent and Mfume leading the lieutenant governor 43 to 41 percent in potential match-ups; the poll had a 3.2 percent margin of error.
The survey also showed that of the 77 percent of likely voters who recognized Steele's name, 48 percent had a favorable impression of him, while 16 percent had an unfavorable view.
A Washington native and Johns Hopkins University graduate, Steele, 46, studied in a Catholic seminary before receiving a law degree and practicing international business law. He has been chairman of the Prince George's County and Maryland Republican parties.
White, the Democratic political director, predicted that national issues would dominate the race and imperil Steele's prospects.
State residents donated $45 million to races outside of Maryland in 2004 - money that White said could stay here if Democrats believed that important decisions about abortion, Social Security and judicial nominees were at stake.
"Now, for the first time in many years, Democrats will look inward and say 'Here is a race that affects national politics,'" White said. Steele "can't run away from the national issues, and that is going to hurt him," he said.
Asked if his anti-death penalty and anti-abortion views would impact a possible race, Steele said: "When we get into a full-blown campaign ... the people of Maryland, if they are concerned about that, will talk about it at that time ... I try to be a man of principle. I don't hide my beliefs."