Top GOP officials fear the White House could slip through their fingers next year unless a new Republican National Committee chairman of integrity and managerial competence emerges as the victor in Friday's elections at Maryland's National Harbor resort, just down the Potomac from Washington.
Incumbent RNC Chairman Michael Steele faces formidable opposition as state party officials gather for the three-day annual winter meeting which officially begins Wednesday, with many unhappy over Mr. Steele's record running the GOP's national governing body and chief fundraising apparatus over the last two years. Key for the next chairman, they say, will be the ability to revive the RNC by bringing major donors back to the fold.
"The new chairman will have to be able to raise far more money and manage it far more competently," said Tennessee RNC member John Ryder. "The amounts raised this time are not enough for the next cycle - and unless you show competence with the money you do raise, you will have no credibility with donors."
Mr. Steele has staunchly defended his tenure and refused to step aside, pointing primarily to major Republican gains at the polls since his election, including breakthrough wins on Capitol Hill and in statehouses around the country in November.
But Mr. Steele has spent much of his time since his sixth-ballot surprise victory in January 2009 defending himself against accusations of cronyism and self-dealing while in office, with former RNC national chairmen, former finance chairmen and current RNC members among his most prominent critics.
"We will undermine any chance for victory over President Obama unless we elect a national chairman of unimpeachable character who knows how to raise and spend money wisely," Oregon GOP member Jim Bopp told The Washington Times.
Mr. Steele is seeking reelection for another two-year term against four rivals, two of whom hold seats on the 168-member committee. With the lowest-scoring candidate dropping out after each round, the race is exceedingly hard to predict.
Mr. Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor and the first black to head the GOP, has taken heat from party critics for giving paid speeches after taking the RNC post, for loose financial controls and for frequent media gaffes.
But the chairman's rivals have faced internal party criticism as well.
Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, who was RNC general counsel under Mr. Steele until recently, has faced questions over why he did not raise concerns over Mr. Steele's management practices earlier. Similarly, Michigan RNC member Saul Anuzis worked on new media projects at the RNC under Mr. Steele and resisted criticizing him for much of the last two years.
Former RNC Co-Chairwoman Ann Wagner, President George W. Bush's ambassador to Luxembourg from 2005-2009, is seen by some as having too close a relationship with ex-Bush strategist Karl Rove and much of the old Bush team.
And former Deputy Transportation Secretary Maria Cino faces questions from social conservative groups that she has tried to hide past associations with what critics call "pro-abortion" groups.
Mr. Priebus claims the most public endorsements, but no candidate is seen as close to having the 85 votes needed for election. How the votes will shift as the field shrinks will be critical to who wins.
But it is Mr. Steele's high-profile tenure and his ability to generate controversy which have made the RNC chairman's race so compelling. He has successfully fought off repeated moves to force him out by some of the most powerful Republicans in the country, acting both publicly and behind the scenes
No national chairman of either major party has faced such continual public sniping by leaders in his own party as has Mr. Steele. The complaints began soon after his election in January 2009, when The Washington Times first reported on the chairman's side income giving paid speeches through four speakers' bureau services.
"Holy mackerel, I never heard of a chairman of either party ever taking money for speeches," Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., RNC chairman under President Reagan and now head of the American Gaming Association, told The Washington Times. "The job of a national chairman is to give speeches. That's what the national party pays him for."
Former Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson told The Times that Mr. Steele's job "demands so much of your time that you can work 24/7 and not get everything done, so taking time out to speak for the benefit of one's own bank account is not appropriate."
Mr. Steele also came in for criticism for writing a book and going on tour to promote it as chairman - and again pocketing the proceeds. "It just doesn't look right using RNC resources and trading on the title of chairman to make outside money," Rich Bond, another former Republican national chairman, said at the time.
But the chairman also has his defenders.
Writing in the Baltimore Sun Tuesday, George Jarkesy, a radio talk-show host, financial manager and GOP donor, said the criticism of Mr. Steele's financial management at the RNC was overstated and based on "emotion."
"In football, when you have a good quarterback who takes you to the Super Bowl, and you win, you don't get rid of him after a winning season," Mr. Jarkesey wrote. "You keep him. Michael Steele was our quarterback and we need to keep him on the RNC team as chairman."
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