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Steele employs strategy of silence


Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele announced his bid for U.S. Senate in October with a promise to be a different kind of candidate, to build bridges between citizens and government and to be a voice for all Marylanders.

Since then, however, with debates raging on a series of national and state issues - including the appointment of a new Supreme Court justice and the revision of minimum-wage laws - Steele has stayed out of the fray.

"I don't need to talk about issues right now," Steele said during a recent interview with The Sun. "I need to establish a relationship with voters."

Steele's strategy of silence faltered last week when he compared embryonic stem cell research to the experiments done by Nazi doctors - a flub that exposed him to harsh criticism, left him struggling to formulate a clear position on a politically vexing issue and led critics to question whether he had sufficient seasoning to ascend to the Senate.

Yesterday, speaking to a WBAL radio talk show host, Steele continued his damage control after saying Thursday to the Baltimore Jewish Council, "You of all folks know what happens when people decide they want to experiment on human beings, when they want to take your life and use it as a tool."

In his latest comments, he said, "I support embryonic stem cell research," a position that seemed to be at odds with his previous remarks.

He also said, "I don't think scientists who engage in this research are Nazis or criminals," adding that "anyone who would try to raise that specter with me or my words is ignorant and wrong. And I'm hoping the public will see through that."

Steele said he remained "cautious of the science, and I want the scientists and the politicians to be smart in how we approach it. I don't want this research to go forward without some bioethic, moral compass, if you will, to guide our research, to guide our steps, to guide the politicians who will be pontificating on this subject, so we don't lose sight of what we're doing."

In a race that has attracted national attention and money, and that could pit him against Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a 10-term Democratic congressman, or Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and former leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, among others, Steele can't necessarily afford another gaffe. Both Cardin and Mfume have well-defined records and are used to defending them in public.

Until his stem cell comments, Steele, who faces only token opposition in the Republican primary, had taken full advantage of a luxury unavailable to the seven Democrats seeking their party's nomination: virtual silence on matters of consequence. It is a strategy that could serve him well, letting Steele quietly raise money through the long primary season and emerge for the general election with little to defend.

Chuck Todd, executive editor of The Hotline, a daily report read by political professionals, called Steele's assertion that he doesn't have to talk about issues "a rookie mistake." Candidates shouldn't dish about campaign tactics, Todd said.

But he didn't quarrel with a candidate like Steele running a low-key campaign. "The less he says, the better," Todd said. "I think it's a smart strategy."

Steele said that he has not held a single campaign event, only fundraisers, since announcing his candidacy.

"It's not time for me to sit down and start handing out white papers," he said. "Leadership is more than where you stand on the issues; it's your value system. It's the things that move you."

Steele also noted that he has been in office three years and that his name recognition statewide is high.

"I find it very hard to believe that people don't have a sense of who I am," he said.

A lawyer and former Catholic seminarian, Steele has never been elected to office on his own. He was the state Republican chairman when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. selected him as his running mate in 2002. National party leaders, who gave Steele a featured speaking role at the 2004 Republican convention, have since anointed him as one of their most promising stars.

But in a state like Maryland, where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 2-to-1, some political observers believe Steele must distinguish himself from President Bush, who raised $500,000 for him at a Baltimore fundraiser last fall but has polled poorly in Maryland in recent months.

John Kane, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, disagreed.

"Anybody would be a fool not to ask for help from the national party, as he's done and I'm sure will continue to do," Kane said of Steele. "He's his own person. And I think Marylanders will see that when the real race begins."

Kane also said that many of Steele's beliefs are clear. He noted, for example, that Steele opposes the death penalty and abortion, positions rooted in his faith.

In two recent cases, when Steele had a chance to take a strong stand on those issues, he declined.

At the end of last year, opponents of the death penalty pressed him to lobby with Ehrlich to forestall an execution, but Steele deferred to the governor and said he would send him a private memo outlining his views.

When supporters and foes of abortion rights squared off over the confirmation of Samuel A. Alito Jr. as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Steele remained tight-lipped on the issue, despite challenges from his opponents and the state Democratic Party that he weigh in.

A Steele campaign spokesman would not say if Steele would have voted for Alito, only that the president has the right to select nominees to the high court.

"I think it's amazing that he never had to comment on Alito," Todd said. "It's stunning. The fact is every other Senate candidate in the country has commented on Alito."

But as the stem cell remark shows, there are dangers in speaking out.

"If I were a voter, I'd worry about having him in the Senate where these folks are in the business of talking," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution. "The political smarts of ever using the Holocaust in any context for a politician is just so clearly a no-no that you just truly think, 'Is he ready for prime time?'"

Yesterday on WBAL, Steele would not take a firm stand on two other matters - the high-profile debate over the Bush administration's wiretapping activities and a more arcane state matter having to do with the distribution of wine.

"I'm still developing perspectives," he said on the wiretapping issue, while also stating that privacy rights and public safety needs must be balanced.

Regarding wine distribution, Steele promised the caller that the needs of the industry would be considered, but he added, "I'm not altogether briefed up on those two bills that you've referenced."


Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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