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No Sweat

By Russ Smith | Posted 5/3/2006

A recent e-mail from a longtime acquaintance in Baltimore County, who’s very conservative on economic and international policies, gave me pause. I’d asked for his reaction to the current status of Maryland’s gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races, and the response was fairly jarring.

“Whatever,” he began. “It’s pretty much all over for the Republicans this year. Ehrlich made a difference the first two and a half years, keeping the legislature in check, but that’s gone now. On the national front, we can only pray. I’ll continue to support the GOP, but without much enthusiasm. The alternatives stink, but it’s hard to fault moderates for wanting to let Democrats have a go at it. Because of the administration’s screwups in Iraq it’ll be extremely difficult to act against Iran right now, which is a disastrous turn of events.”

A subsequent phone call did nothing to get this fellow off his window ledge, and we hadn’t even discussed Michael Steele’s very disappointing Senate campaign to date. The obvious conclusion, if my friend is an accurate barometer, is that conservatives are either going to hold their noses and go to the polls in November or watch Law and Order reruns instead.

As I wrote last week, despite the polls, it seems incumbent Robert Ehrlich will run a very competitive gubernatorial campaign as Democrats Martin O’Malley and Doug Duncan duke it out over the summer, possibly with acrimonious ramifications. Steele’s another matter.

Unfortunately, Steele has no Republican challenger for the nomination, and so he’s biding his time, apparently waiting for the fall to get his campaign in gear. Even though Ben Cardin and Kweisi Mfume will have their own skirmishes until the Democratic primary, Steele’s making a huge mistake by employing this “Rose Garden” strategy, acting like a presumptive front-runner. In reality, the lieutenant governor has a much harder row to hoe than Ehrlich, and is squandering the plethora of positive national media he’s received so far. The Sun was quite correct on April 18 when it editorialized, in effect, that Steele playing Hamlet on the capital punishment issue is a waste of time, especially his call for more “study” on the contentious subject.

It doesn’t bother me that Steele’s against the death penalty while I favor it, but his position is clear, as is his adamant anti-abortion stance. Fine. Voters know that, how about utilizing his free primary ride by holding regular press conferences in different parts of the state every week, campaigning as if he’s the underdog that he certainly is? What’s his opinion on President Bush’s profligate nonmilitary spending? How, as Maryland’s senator, would he vote on the outrageous pork-barrel politics in Congress, another travesty practiced by both parties? What about the Iranian leadership’s vow to wipe Israel off the map? And would he be an active free trader, dissociating himself from the protectionists (like U.S. Rep. Cardin) and restrictionists in Congress currently who are staining this country’s reputation?

These aren’t trifling questions, and Steele, who has the best opportunity in Maryland’s history to become the state’s first black senator, is campaigning as if he’s at a croquet garden party.

I don’t share my friend’s pessimism about the national political situation, but the optimism I once had for Steele’s victory is fading fast. Steele has a compelling personal story and the monetary backing of the Republican National Committee and conservatives from across the country, but he isn’t demonstrating the passion necessary to win in November, no matter who he’s facing.

In an April 28 Baltimore Examiner interview, Steele was asked if his status as a Catholic, pro-life, Republican, and black public official “put [him] in a little box.” Steele responded: “It puts me in the mainstream of American, baby. . . . [I’m] a brother who cares.” That’s a flip answer and isn’t really relevant to the Senate race. Maryland, one of the most Democratic states in the country, isn’t in what Steele describes as the “mainstream.”

Simply put, Steele’s blowing his chance to make history and serve his state. Some Republican congressional candidates will be swept away because of Bush backlash, but at least they’re breaking a sweat. Steele isn’t.

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