Sunny Steele personality couldn't overcome issues

The Baltimore Sun

Republican Michael S. Steele conceded Maryland's U.S. Senate contest to Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin yesterday, capping an unconventional campaign that was big on personality but faltered as a result of his support of President Bush's Iraq policy and his conservative social views.

Kweisi Mfume, the former NAACP chief who was defeated by Cardin in the primary, said he views Steele's defeat as "a message to the president that people wanted change."

"I think in this instance they were right in voting for Ben, based on the issues and not personality," said Mfume, who endorsed Cardin but did not actively campaign for him until a few days before the election, when he recorded an automated phone message on Cardin's behalf.

Steele, the lieutenant governor and the state's highest-ranking black official, sounded sunny during a midday speech in Annapolis after a noontime congratulatory call to Cardin.

"I started this campaign with a conversation with Marylanders, and I'm going to continue this conversation because it's important that we build bridges," Steele said. "It's important that we put ourselves where people are every day."

Describing his conversation with Cardin, Steele said, "I enjoyed sparring with him over the past few months, and I wished him well. I wished Myrna [Cardin's wife] well. Their lives have changed and, hopefully, they will - particularly Congressman Cardin - bring to the table so many who have been left on the side.

"And I told him that specifically. Don't forget the poor. Don't forget those who are trying their best. But like Thurgood Marshall said, be the hand or two to help them. So, I hope he is that kind of senator, because Maryland needs it."

During his campaign, Steele introduced himself to Maryland voters and drew national attention with an appealing series of television commercials featuring the candidate and a black-and-white Boston terrier.

But the ads, Steele's endorsements from hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and boxing promoter Don King, and his attempt to mask his party affiliation with "Steele Democrat" bumper stickers proved futile. The candidate's pleas to black voters to support one of their own also failed, as African-Americans cast ballots for Cardin in overwhelming numbers, from Prince George's County to Baltimore.

Never having won an election on his own, Steele finishes the campaign with an uncertain future.

Carol Hirschburg, a Republican consultant, said that Steele still represents a bright light in the state Republican Party and that he could have a future nationally. She said he could gain a Bush administration appointment or a position with the Republican National Committee. Or he could run for office again - for governor in 2010, or U.S. Senate again should Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski retire that year.

"In a way, I think it's unfair to judge him in this year on this race," Hirschburg said. "He had the disadvantage of being a Republican in a year when Republicans were losing all across the country."

For Steele, a pro-life Roman Catholic and former seminarian who was recruited to run by top Bush administration officials, winning in Maryland was a long shot.

"Steele was swimming against a horrendous tide that we didn't make. Bush made it for him," said Walter Ludwig, a former consultant to Mfume's Senate campaign. Steele "ran a really good campaign. He surprised me. He was much more adept at campaigning than I thought he would be."

In an effort to court black voters, Steele and his team mentioned Mfume often on the radio and during campaign events as if they were carrying on his legacy, despite their opposing views on the war, abortion, stem cell research and a host of other issues.

"The Republican Party doesn't get it when it comes to African-American voters. Like other Americans, we vote our interests," said Donna L. Brazile, who managed Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. "It is not a repudiation of Michael Steele as an individual or Michael Steele as an African-American. It's a repudiation of who Michael Steele would caucus with."

With about 98 percent of Maryland's precincts reporting, Cardin received 54 percent and Steele 43 percent.

Exit polls indicate that Cardin got 74 percent of the black vote and Steele 25 percent. Steele was backed by 52 percent of whites, while 47 percent supported Cardin. Steele's slight edge with white voters was not enough to counter Cardin's advantage with blacks.

"He's a personable individual," former Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening said of Steele. "Everyone acknowledges that, whether you love him or hate him. He was able to convey that warmth and outgoing personality throughout the campaign, and particularly with his television commercials. And that was his strongest asset. I heard one pundit say it was his only asset."

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