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He loves Bush - he loves him not?


Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele last week continued his almost surreal quest for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

He's an underdog in need of all the help he can get. But, not for the first time, he vented his frustrations with his own party's president, George W. Bush. Mr. Bush, he said, is an anchor on his aspirations. The president has an even lower approval rating in Maryland than in the country as a whole.

Then there was the R-word, standing for Republican. That didn't help in heavily Democratic Maryland either, he said.

Mr. Steele - who has generally shied away from reporters at home - had arranged a sit-down with a room full of reporters at a Washington, D.C., restaurant.

Perhaps you know the story. The participants agreed not to quote him by name, only to say he was a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. This is a variation on the old Washington game of quoting "high administration sources" or words to that effect.

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank recorded the session, including the ground rules. And then he wrote what he heard, triggering, of all things, a guessing game.

Who was the mysterious candidate? Who could imagine that such a gambit could possibly keep his identity secret?

After Mr. Milbank wrote, Mr. Steele repaired to the old dodge: His remarks had been taken out of context. But here's the thing: If you're concerned that such sensitive comments might be misconstrued or misinterpreted or misquoted, you don't make them - certainly not in front of eight reporters.

The inevitable unmasking came immediately. The White House was asked to respond and quickly reaffirmed its support for his Senate campaign.

Here, as Alice would say, things began to get curiouser and curiouser.

It's remotely possible, one might have thought, that President Bush would have been unhappy and the Republican Party would have cried "ingrate" - or worse.

Hadn't they raised a ton of money for him? They had. Hadn't they given him their high-five of approval? They had, twice and thrice over.

But no. The White House said Mr. Steele was still their man.

Why? You're asking why?

Because, dear reader, it remains possible that Mr. Steele can be elected in Maryland, despite the Democrats' 2-to-1 advantage in registered voters.

He's never been elected to anything on his own, but that has not been a disqualifying factor for candidates in other states. So, is Maryland part of a nation trend in which men and women of little experience have been elected? The possibility remains, though it may turn to dust if there are more steakhouse conversations.

Michael Steele registers quite well in the political polls - and word from the hustings gives him high remarks for "working a room." He's a tall, good-looking man who is easy to meet and like.

Are these attributes enough to vault him into the U.S. Senate? The national Republican Party and Mr. Bush clearly think it's worth checking out. Republicans are working hard to maintain or improve their voting majority there.

So, Mr. Steele laments his relationship with Mr. Bush - with impunity. Was he hoping his words would be reported in Maryland, where his affiliation with Mr. Bush is a pox on his candidacy? He says he is amused by that question.

He shouldn't be. He should have expected it. If he didn't, he's succumbing to the house-of-mirrors quality of his campaign. He would have done better to say it all loud and on the record. Clearly, the White House would have remained by his side.

He has said similar things in other venues, after all, so what was gained by the background-only rules? Voters in both parties would have applauded a more straightforward concession to reality.

If the steakhouse gambit was an ill-conceived plan gone awry, we have new evidence that running for office is not a stroll in the park. A candidate who avoids the traps - self-made and otherwise - must have innate talent or keen judgment born of experience.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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