Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, describing President Bush as his "homeboy," said yesterday that "if the president wants to come and help me in Maryland he is more than welcome."
"I'm not going to turn my back on a friend," he said on WBAL radio yesterday. "I'm not going to do that."
His hospitable remarks contrasted with his sharp, anonymous criticism of the Bush administration published in The Washington Post on Tuesday and his assertion that he would "probably not" want the president to stump for his Senate campaign.
During the radio interview, Steele played down his earlier contention that running as a Republican candidate this year was akin to wearing "a scarlet letter," maintaining that he had been joking.
As Steele worked yesterday to mend fences with the White House, which has raised big money for his Senate bid, the Bush administration sought to shake the whole thing off, calling it politics, plain and simple.
"It's pretty clear that there's a commitment at this end to making sure that Michael Steele becomes the next U.S. senator from Maryland," White House press secretary Tony Snow said, adding that Bush had been apprised of Steele's remarks but that he was unwilling to repeat the president's response.
During the radio interview, Steele said he wants to "have an honest conversation" with Maryland voters and has always been an independent thinker.
His published remarks -- which included criticism of Bush's Iraq policy ("It didn't work") and his sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina ("A monumental failure of government") -- led to a frenzied but short-lived guessing game in political circles about their source, a Republican senatorial candidate who initially was not identified.
When Steele's campaign confirmed Tuesday that he was the one who had bashed his party's leader, Democrats and some pundits suggested that the episode was a calculated attempt to put distance between the candidate and an unpopular president.
That was not his intention, Steele said yesterday. He thought his conversation with a group of reporters at a Capitol Hill steakhouse was private, he said, accusing the Post of violating his confidence. Post columnist Dana Milbank said he tape-recorded the ground rules for the interview, which permitted quotes to be used and attributed to a Republican Senate candidate.
Steele also sought to portray his comments as unremarkable, maintaining that he was repeating statements he had made publicly and frequently.
A check of the public record shows he has had little to say about Hurricane Katrina and Iraq in the past.
Steele did tell The Washington Times in March that Katrina relief was "an incredible failure of the government to recognize and execute its responsibility on all levels."
In September, just after the hurricane, Steele focused on Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who he said "jumped the gun" in sending rescue personnel to Louisiana without full approval of emergency officials. O'Malley, a Democrat, is running against Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
On Iraq, Steele has said he advocates accelerating bringing U.S. troops home. He also has argued -- in line with Bush -- that the United States should not pull out until Iraqis can police and govern themselves. In the interview published this week, however, Steele stopped just short of calling the war a failure.
"People want an honest assessment from the administration, and they want to hear the administration admit we thought this, and it didn't happen than way, and -- guess what -- it didn't work, so we're going to try a Plan B," Steele said.
He also stressed his party allegiance during yesterday's radio interview.
"Everyone in the country knows that the party has been taking some hits and that people have some concerns here and there," Steele said. "That's the environment in Maryland. It's reflected in the polls. ... But it doesn't change who I am. It doesn't change the fact that I'm going to be running as a Republican. I'm proud to be a Republican."
As a former head of the Maryland GOP, Steele has been a staunch advocate for Bush. He delivered a rousing speech supporting the president at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York.
In turn, Bush raised $500,000 for the lieutenant governor last fall. Vice President Dick Cheney, former President George H.W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush, former White House chief of staff Andrew Card and presidential adviser Karl Rove are among the Bush loyalists who have headlined fundraisers for Steele's campaign.
"The Steele-Bush relationship is a fatal attraction, and Michael Steele knows it," said Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman. "Steele can't say no to Bush when it comes to Iraq, stem cells or millions in campaign cash. ... Steele should know that if there's one thing that Marylanders like less than Bush, it's politicians like Michael Steele who try to have it both ways."
Jennifer Duffy, editor and political analyst for The Cook Political Report, said she is not surprised that the administration is willing to let bygones be bygones.
Voters will have to decide for themselves whether they think Steele's latest critique of the president's policies is sincere or contrived, she said.
"The White House has invested a lot in this campaign, and they're not going to walk away now," she said.
Ehrlich said his State House partner has "an independent streak. That's why we we're drawn to each other."
Sun reporters Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.