President Bush on Wednesday called Lt. Gov. Michael Steele a decent and honorable man who would stand firm in the fight against terror and who would “help heal racial wounds” in Maryland if he won next year’s race for the U.S. Senate.

The president spoke at a $125-a-head Steele fund-raiser at midday, swooping down to Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium in a detail of helicopters after delivering a morning speech on terrorism at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

“As Maryland builds a bridge, you might as well make it a Steele bridge,” Bush said.

Outside the stadium, about 40 protesters organized by Progressive Maryland, who bill themselves as a grassroots advocacy group, gathered in a parking lot.

Police kept the group to the outskirts of the stadium property, separated from the event by fences, barricades and two sets of train tracks.

Noise from the highway overhead threatened to drown out speakers from the group and local unions as they called Steele to task for what they say is the Ehrlich administration’s indifference to the problems of poor Marylanders, and for associating himself with Bush.

Steele’s last major fund-raiser, with Bush adviser Karl Rove in July, drew criticism from many Democrats who said it showed Steele’s alliance with the Bush administration’s policies. Wednesday’s event is drawing similar fire.

The doubts stem from Bush’s declining poll numbers and an election eve campaign stop this year where Bush appeared with Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate, Jerry Kilgore, only to have Kilgore lose decisively to Democratic rival Tim Kaine. Only 33 percent of Marylanders approve of the president, according to a recent poll by The Sun of Baltimore.

Leonardo Alcivar, Steele’s campaign spokesman, dismissed such concerns in an earlier interview.

“The lieutenant governor and the president diverge on some important issues, and at the end of the day, it’s Michael Steele whose name will be on the ballot box, and not the president’s,” Alcivar said.

Others at the fund-raiser didn’t think Bush’s support would harm Steele’s chances, particularly with the event expected to raise at least $500,000.

“Who’s going to remember in a year?” asked Doni Glover, a political analyst and the publisher of the Baltimore-based political news site

While voters would forget the president’s appearance by Election Day, Steele needed the money the president would help raise, including the $5,000 donations for photo opportunities with the president, Glover said.

While those inside the stadium were able to pay to get a peek at the president, outside Dorothy Bryant, of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said she came to protest “on behalf of simple working class people . . . who are not a part of Steele’s agenda.&q