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A leadership-building guide for the Republican Party


OK, NOBODY asked, but here's what Maryland Republicans should do to expand their party's paper-thin leadership.

First, keep Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele out of the race for U.S. Senate. It's an idea contemplated only because the party's ranks are so anemic, because image threatens to eclipse everything in our society and because national GOP interests are salivating.

Maybe it's understandable that the party would try to capitalize on poll standings that make Mr. Steele look competitive. But ultimately, there's no substitute for building credibility the old-fashioned way: getting elected and earning a future based on performance.

Mr. Steele announced last week that he will explore the possibility of running. Here's what a real exploration would conclude: He's not a good fit. For better or worse, the U.S. Senate is a deliberative body, a body of lawmakers. Mr. Steele doesn't have a single second of experience in such an arena.

The Ehrlich administration has been accused by Democrats of following the national playbook: an anti-government, no-new-tax, hardball-rhetoric approach designed not to attract Democrats but to expand the party's conservative base. If the Republicans force Mr. Steele into a Senate race, they'll be overplaying the playbook big-time.

The national GOP wants another vote in the U.S. Senate and thinks it has a chance of getting one in, of all places, reliably liberal and Democratic Maryland. The Republicans think that if the winner were Mr. Steele, an African-American, the political dividend would be immense.

But if Maryland Republicans want to control their own destiny, there's a far more interesting and worthy option. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s success allowed them to think about a day when they didn't have to recruit sports stars to run for statewide offices. The Michael Steele Senate idea is a variation on that tired stopgap.

Here's a far better way to rebuild GOP leadership in Maryland: Keep the winning Ehrlich-Steele ticket intact. It's an attractive team. Why dilute a winning ticket?

The party ought to think about developing talent it may have overlooked. For example, why not run James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. for comptroller? There are a dozen reasons why this idea would make more sense than Steele for Senate.

Mr. DiPaula is more than qualified. If there is one success in the Ehrlich administration so far, it's Mr. DiPaula's management of the numbers. He stepped up and supplied expertise no one thought he or the GOP had. The party had been out of the governor's office for 36 years.

He mastered a $23 billion spending plan overnight. The economy has helped, but he's gotten a staggering deficit into what looks like manageable proportions. The cost in starved programs might not be your cup of tea, but it's been done with efficiency and resolve.

It's passed off as a joke by the governor, but Mr. DiPaula is the star of the Ehrlich administration, eclipsing the governor himself in terms of actually running the state. If Mr. Ehrlich gets re-elected, one of his best arguments will be Mr. DiPaula and fiscal management.

In further validation of his value, the governor has taken him out of the budget office now to make him chief of staff in charge of, everyone assumes, re-election. He's the obvious choice because he's shown an ability to work with Democrats, still an important qualification in a state where most legislators and most voters are registered Democrats.

It's not going to happen, of course. Mr. DiPaula may not want to run for office. If he did, though, he'd give the GOP a chance to promote competence over fleeting, transparent opportunism.

Beyond that, there's a limit to the party's devotion to party-building. Mr. Ehrlich probably doesn't want to field a strong GOP candidate against Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat. Mr. Schaefer has been his usually reliable partner on the Board of Public Works, where some of the governor's policies are voted.

And running a strong opponent against Mr. Schaefer might alienate Schaefer loyalists. Mr. Ehrlich - and Mr. DiPaula - may see Mr. Schaefer as essential to the governor's re-election. Party-building and getting re-elected aren't the same things.

Too bad. A candidate like Mr. DiPaula would put the GOP on the side of substance. It would be a great long-term investment - and a refreshing departure from trying to catch political lightning in a bottle.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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