updated 9/1/2004 5:44:29 PM ET 2004-09-01T21:44:29

Rising Republican star Michael Steele on Tuesday called on minorities to embrace the GOP, saying Republican principles helped him become the first black ever elected to a statewide office in Maryland.

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“If we expect to succeed, if we expect our children to succeed, we must look to ourselves and not to government to raise our kids, start our business or provide care to our aging parent,” said Steele, the Maryland lieutenant governor. “What government can do is give us the tools we need and then get out of the way and let us put our hopes into action.”

Steele is one of three blacks — along with Secretary of Education Rod Paige and 2003 Miss America Erika Harold — among the featured speakers at the convention Tuesday.

Seventeen percent of the delegates this year are minorities, compared with 10 percent in 2000, the Republican National Committee has said.

“I am proof that the blessings of liberty are within the reach of every American,” said Steele, pointing out that his mother was the daughter of sharecroppers but raised a pediatrician and a lieutenant governor.

Steele and the others face inevitable comparisons to Democratic Senate candidate Barak Obama, who rocketed to stardom after giving the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Steele joked that Obama did his work for him. “I had planned to give a moving defense of the conservative principles of the Republican Party tonight,” Steele said. “But there was only one problem — Barak Obama gave it last month at the Democratic Convention.”

Steele also jabbed at Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, noting that Kerry said he didn’t want to describe the efforts to fight terrorism as a “war.”

“Well, I don’t want to use the words 'commander in chief’ to describe John Kerry,” Steele said

Paige pointed out that he attended segregated schools as a child, and that he was in college when the Supreme Court ruled on the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case on school desegregation.

“I thought true equality would soon follow,” Paige said. “It did not. When Brown opened the door to all, it did not guarantee quality education for all. President Bush saw this two-tiered system as unacceptable.”

Steele pointed out that it was Lincoln, a Republican president, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, GOP President Eisenhower who sent in the National Guard to help desegregate Little Rock schools and Republican senators who fought past segregationist Democrats to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But “what truly defines the civil rights challenge today isn’t whether you can get a seat at the lunch counter,” said Steele, “It’s whether you can own that lunch counter in order to create legacy wealth for your children.”

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