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Steele's national standing grows

The Baltimore Sun

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Deprived of sleep and the chance to change his clothes, Michael S. Steele landed here Sunday night and was whisked to the cavernous Fox News tent at the Republican convention for yet another national television appearance.

The former Maryland lieutenant governor hugged Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and bumped fists with conservative commentator Sean Hannity as he took his seat on an elevated, red-carpeted stage. Clad in linen slacks and a purple shirt beneath his blazer, Steele delivered the kind of smooth defense of John McCain that has made him a regular on the network.

Steele argued that the Republican candidate was right to forgo nationally televised convention speeches in the face of Hurricane Gustav. "He's looking at Americans who are in need or who are hurt, and is saying, 'Look, we can stop the party and take care of our own, and I think that is important,' " he said.

Among Maryland's most visible Republicans, Steele has kept a high profile since his 2006 Senate defeat, as a news media figure and head of GOPAC, an organization whose aim is to recruit and train state and local Republican candidates.

An active McCain surrogate, Steele has blossomed of late. He camped out at the Democratic National Convention in Denver as both a commentator and as part of a Republican response team pushing back against Democratic messages. He is scheduled to address his second consecutive Republican convention tonight, and he stayed up all night writing the speech before flying to Minnesota.

Some supporters floated Steele's name as a McCain running mate, although there is no indication he was considered.

"I'm just a soldier in the field," Steele said during a brief interview inside the Fox News tent. "You need me, you call me."

Steele's champions predict a bright future.

"I think Michael is going to play a major role ... in the not-too-distant future back in Maryland, becoming a statewide leader in a way that I think would be terrific," Newt Gingrich, a former GOPAC leader and speaker of the House, said last month at the group's convention in Washington.

But as Steele's standing grows, his political prospects in his home state look uncertain.

Maryland Republicans are at a nadir after former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s re-election defeat and Steele's failed Senate bid.

Steele, a former state party chairman, has yet to prove he can win office on his own. He was elected lieutenant governor in 2002 as part of a ticket with Ehrlich, and he finished third in a primary for state comptroller in 1998. Opponents criticize his resume, which includes time as a corporate attorney and a home-based consultant, as thin.

The statewide office most within reach for Republicans is the governorship, but Ehrlich holds the right of first refusal for a rematch with Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley. Many observers consider the race to be an uphill battle for a Republican in heavily Democratic Maryland. If Ehrlich declines, Steele could step in, using his half-million-dollar state campaign account as a foundation. But the challenge would be no easier.

More so than Steele, Ehrlich has stayed focused on Maryland, hosting a weekly radio show and appearing at county and state fairs and other events that put him in contact with former constituents.

"I see Ehrlich far more affiliated with Maryland politics," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, the House Republican whip from Washington County.

As for Steele running again, Shank said: "The conventional wisdom is it's a wait-and-see game."

Steele's reputation took a hit on Election Day in 2006, said state Democratic Party spokesman David Paulson, when Steele and Ehrlich used out-of-town workers to distribute sample ballots in predominantly African-American communities that falsely asserted that both had been endorsed by Democratic leaders.

"He has done tremendous damage to himself in his home county" of Prince George's, Paulson said.

"He seems to be a charming, enthusiastic guy who takes to the campaign lifestyle with enthusiasm. But I don't think the voters think he is a credible leader, given his performance in his past campaigns," Paulson said. "He's spending a lot of time building a national persona, but not so much on things that matter to people in Maryland."

Steele insists that his heart remains in Maryland. "My future is always at home, baby," he said in an interview. "What I try to do is take what I have learned outside of Maryland and bring it back home."

On the campaign trail for McCain this year, Steele is regularly called on to address African-American audiences and issues of interest to the black community. Republican officials in Maryland say that if he were to win office, the party's efforts to convert black voters would be bolstered.

African-Americans make up about 29 percent of the state population, yet there are no blacks among the state's 71 GOP convention delegates and alternates, and no black Republicans in the State House in Annapolis.

"Our ideas are our attraction," said state GOP Chairman Jim Pelura. "The Republican ideas are colorblind."

Steele said he can be of value to McCain on issues beyond race. "For me, it is whatever role the party and leaders of the party think I should play to be helpful," he said. "I'm prepared to talk on pretty much anything that is out there."

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