Four candidates vying to serve as the next Republican National Committee chairman want conservative activists and the 168 members who will choose the next party leader to be clear about one thing: They're not Michael Steele.
The incumbent chairman has not said whether he will seek a second term, and he was not present at the first candidate forum of the year, hosted by FreedomWorks and a group of conservative members of the RNC.
And while candidates who hope to replace him disagreed on little during the two-hour forum, they spent the bulk of their time trying to convince RNC members they would offer the cleanest break after two tumultuous years under Steele's leadership.
Those candidates -- announced contenders Saul Anuzis, the former Michigan Republican Party chairman, and former Ambassador Ann Wagner, along with potential candidates Gentry Collins, the former RNC political director, and ex-chairman Mike Duncan -- offered a litany of complaints about the current state of the national party, stressing that beating President Obama is going to be harder than it was to win over control of the House this year.
The candidates echoed a two-year old narrative that the RNC had neglected its largest campaign contributors; that the committee had failed to fully fund an adequate ground operation, which allowed Democrats to win seats the GOP otherwise could have snagger; and that the incumbent chairman was not completely dedicated to his job and instead spent some of his time promoting a book he wrote at least partially while in office and giving paid speeches.
The RNC "fell short in many areas we shouldn't have fallen short in," Anuzis argued. Collins called it essential to "have a chairman who is laser-focused on raising the resources that it takes to run [a] ground game." "I intend to be a chairman full-time and faithfully, 24/7," Wagner said.
All four contenders took pains not to mention Steele by name. Only Collins, asked directly why Steele was vulnerable, uttered the incumbent's name. But they all agreed tending to the donor base in order to fully fund the party's vaunted 72-hour program was an essential, and neglected, factor in their bids.
"It's important that you raise the money and the funds that you need, and I don't believe that has been done in the last cycle," Wagner said.
"Chairman Steele is a fine man and a good man, and he's always been good to me personally," Collins said. "But the party under his leadership has not been able to raise the major donor money that it is going to require to beat Barack Obama, to beat his policies and to beat his ideology in 2012."
Each candidate has been quietly making the case that their resume is best suited to the job. Duncan, who raised hundreds of millions of dollars during his tenure in office, said he knows what the job takes and how to operate the committee effectively (""I've had an opportunity to meet more of the Fortune 400 than I ever thought I would," he joked). Anuzis touts
his grassroots activism and his own financial prowess as the former Michigan party chairman. Wagner focuses
on her history in Missouri, where she guided her party to key wins, and to her relationship with some of the party's biggest money men. And Collins
, who has spent a career managing and strategizing for campaigns, said those with professional backgrounds frequently do best as chairman.
But even without Steele's physical presence, the incumbent chairman hung over the forum. After two years at the RNC during which tempers frequently flared, many who complained about Steele's leadership, as well as those who quietly left his orbit, are now openly attending a forum aimed more at finding a replacement for Steele than anything else.
Collins himself was Steele's hand-picked political director, a staffer whose discretion about committee business ended when he wrote a scathing letter to the RNC's executive committee virtually accusing Steele of costing the party seats. Former RNC communications director Trevor Francis
, who left the committee after several private clashes with Steele, said he has two friends running -- Collins and former Bush administration official Maria Cino
. And Blaise Hazelwood
, the highly-regarded Republican strategist who helped Steele get elected in 2009, took in the forum from the back row; an RNC official earlier this week told The Hotline
Hazelwood no longer had a contract with the RNC.
Perhaps the most evident example of Steele's fall from RNC grace will come tomorrow, when Wisconsin Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus
participates in the second day of the gathering of conservative members. Priebus was Steele's biggest booster on the committee in 2009, and as general counsel he has been tasked with putting out fires among committee members several times after Steele has made ill-advised comments.
Steele has not set a timetable on when he might announce whether he will run for another term, but events are swirling that may force his hand. Last week, the Washington Times
and the Washington Post
reported on big spending by the RNC's Committee on Arrangements, which is tasked with organizing the quadrennial party convention, to be held in 2012 in Tampa. And on Thursday, the RNC will file its latest financial reports with the Federal Election Commission, a report that is expected to show the committee is deeply in the red.
"I'm told that there's a lot of debt," said the typically understated Duncan.