The GOP Senate candidate who anonymously described his Republican affiliation as an "impediment" to his electoral prospects while speaking with the Washington Post's Dana Milbank and others at a Monday luncheon is none other than Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, ABC News learned Tuesday.
"'I've got an 'R' here, a scarlet letter,'" said Steele of his party affiliation. "'If this race is about Republicans and Democrats, I lose.'"
Despite having been recruited to run for the Senate by President Bush and key Republican leaders eager to improve the party's performance among African-American voters, Steele separated himself rhetorically from many central aspects of the Bush administration's record. He called the government's response to Hurricane Katrina "'a monumental failure,'" saying, "'We became so powerful in our ivory towers, in our gated communities. We forgot that there are poor people.'"
In a Tuesday interview with ABC News in Takoma Park, Md., intended to test the potential public policy impact of his private disenchantment, Steele would not pledge to forego a congressional pay raise until the minimum wage is increased, a notion recently proposed by Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and others.
"Trust me, whether or not a congressman gets a pay raise has nothing to do with the brother who's living on the street corner," said Steele.
Steele charged potential Senate colleagues with "lying to the public" by promoting a minimum wage hike, lambasting "anyone, whether it's Ted Kennedy, or anyone else, who wants to dumb this down to the minimum wage." He contended that Kennedy's proposal, which would gradually raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour, would not "all of a sudden" give a lower income worker "an education, all of a sudden give that person a job, all of a sudden ... change their life around."
Kennedy spokeswoman Laura Capps responded to Steele's swipe by telling ABC News, "It is the height of hypocrisy to say it is fine for the Republican Congress to raise its pay while it refuses to raise the minimum wage. In the nine years since the minimum wage was last increased in 1997, Congress has voted itself eight pay raises totaling more than $31,000 a year."
In between bites of hanger steak and risotto at his steakhouse meeting with reporters, Steele not only faulted President Bush for failing to connect with the plight of Katrina's poor, but also rapped the administration for its handling of Iraq -- the issue Steele labeled "the single thread that is weaving through every issue, 'including high gas prices and the violence in Lebanon.'"
"People want an honest assessment from the administration," Steele told Milbank, "and they want to hear the administration admit ... it didn't work, so we're going to try a Plan B."
But when asked by ABC News if he supports the June proposal by Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Md., one of two leading candidates for the Democratic Senate nod, to withdraw half the 130,000 American troops deployed in Iraq by the end of the year, Steele balked, saying he opposes "any form of timetable because I think that's irresponsible."
In contrast to his telling Milbank on Monday that he "'probably'" did not want President Bush campaigning for him given the President's unpopularity in Maryland, Steele in his ABC interview refused to challenge Bush's handling of Iraq, expressing confidence that the "president is trusting the intelligence that he's getting from the generals on the ground."
Democrats seized upon Steele's clandestine musings to portray the candidate as too beholden to the president for his fundraising prowess to truly be an independent voice.
Mark Clack, the campaign manager to former NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume, one of the Democrats seeking his party's Senate nomination, questioned Steele's consistency: "It seems that he's trying to have it both ways: casting himself as a moderate maverick, while at the same time accepting the national Republican Party's invitation to join the Senate race and join in on the campaign bounty which he currently sits upon."