STEELE EXPOSED. My immediate thought upon reading Dana Milbank�s column in the Post yesterday about the mystery Republican senate candidate was that it smelled like Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele. Turns out, it was.

I teach in Maryland, and the thing you have to understand is that Steele is in a bad spot. Sure, Maryland is a very blue state, and 2006 is looking more and more like a bad Republican cycle. But Steele also has four liabilities that his boss, Gov. Bob Ehrlich, does not: 1. Ehrlich is running for re-election, not his first election, and Steele has never won on his own; 2. Ehrlich has a longstanding geographic base of support from his congressional days representing Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Harford County, whereas Steele does not; 3. Ehrlich is running for state office, not national office, and that insulates Ehrlich from many of the tough issues that Steele can only duck for so long, notably Iraq; and 4. Steele just doesn�t have the natural political skill, agility and experience Ehrlich does.

This last disadvantage was on full display in Steele�s foolish attempt to play the national media to appeal to state audiences. If Steele now thinks he can use the episode to wink to Maryland voters that he really isn�t a Bush Republican, but rather his �own man,� he�s playing with fire. He will inevitably come off as a flip-flopping slickster who is trying to be too clever by half. As my polical science colleague David Lublin of American University speculates:

Democrats may be hard pressed to succeed in winning points with voters through attacks on Steele for agreeing with them. However, an excellent question for future Senate debates would be whether Steele was being insincere and acting out of political expediency when he wholeheartedly endorsed Bush in 2004 or when he bashed him in 2006. Or was he simply playing politics on both occasions? Perhaps he was for Bush before he was against him.

Of course, given the generic Republican disadvantages this cycle and in Maryland, compounded by Steele�s other liabilities, I suppose Steele has little to lose with such absurd ploys.

A final note: Steele loves to play the victim angle, so watch for him to try to portray himself as a casualty of a leak-happy liberal national media.

--Tom Schaller