NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele faces what amounts to his swan song on Friday as the very activists who first elected him prepare to decide who will steer the party's top political apparatus into the 2012 presidential election. After two years that contrasted historic Republican wins with acrimonious clashes between Steele and members of the national committee, all indications suggest Steele, seeking a second two-year term, will not be re-elected.
And yet Steele remains, to the media, the dominant figure at a biennial reorganization of the RNC. He has shown little to no indication he will give up without fighting to keep his job, vowing both never to drop out of the race and to defend his two-year tenure as one of the most successful electoral periods in Republican Party history.
Among the RNC's 168 members, who will make their decision on a new chairman Friday, Steele's physical presence looms large, but his relevance is waning. He roams the halls at a conference center just south of Washington—ironically a conference center Steele helped create as Maryland's lieutenant governor—greeting members with warm smiles and embraces, even as most of those members, well over a majority, plan on voting for one of the four other candidates vying to replace Steele.
From high-profile gaffes to fundraising woes that threaten the party's chances to win future elections, Steele's tenure has been marked by a head-slapping frustration among members of a committee more acclimated to operating below the national consciousness than to appearing on the front pages with frequency.
"Mike is a very nice guy, and I think he tried very hard," said Chris Healy, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party. "But unfortunately the record is what it is, and the needs and the goals of the next 16 months are going to require something a little different, something more down in the trenches as opposed to being more in front of the lights."
One candidate, ironically the man once considered Steele's closest ally among committee members, has emerged as a front-runner to take the top job. Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus has collected 40 public endorsements, nearly halfway to the 85 a candidate needs to win election. That is far ahead of the number of votes collected by Steele, former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis, former RNC Co-Chairman Ann Wagner or former Bush administration official Maria Cino.
Still, many members have not made their choice for chairman public, throwing some doubt on the outcome of the race's first ballot. Several Steele supporters are among those who have kept quiet, and observers and committee members keeping their own tallies expect Steele and Priebus to finish the first round in close proximity, with somewhere around 45 to 50 votes each. Anuzis is expected to eke out a third-place finish, somewhere in the mid-twenties, with Wagner and Cino close behind.
Because a majority is required to elect a chairman, candidates are asking members to commit to backing them as second and third choices. Because no candidate is required to drop out of the race at any point, even if they finish in last place, voters who decide to back a different candidate on subsequent ballots will decide which candidate becomes the next chairman of the RNC.
With just hours to go, the campaigning is fast and furious. On their way to an opening reception, Anuzis cornered Louisiana GOP Chairman Roger Villerie, an uncommitted voter. "Some are sending me diamonds, others are sending me gold. And you're only sending me tweets!" Villerie joked, referring to Anuzis's reputation as a new media devotee.
Steele's bloc is likely to be the first to crumble. It is extraordinarily rare for an incumbent to be anyone's second choice, and many Steele voters have given hints to other candidates they will not stick with their initial choice after the first ballot. The real question that hangs in the air at National Harbor then becomes whether Steele voters feel, as the chairman does, scorned by their former ally Priebus.
The other candidates have set out to cast Priebus as the overwhelming front-runner, the pseudo-incumbent who stands as the heir apparent to Steele's legacy. That strategy serves two purposes: It saddles Priebus with what may be unnaturally high expectations while simultaneously tying him to a chairman most voters have already decided to vote against, thanks to a two-year legacy of fundraising woes and ill-advised statements. If Priebus falls short of expectations, or if he cannot shake the taint of an association with Steele, Priebus could suddenly find himself vulnerable.
The bloc of Steele voters will prove decisive in determining the final outcome. If they decide Priebus has turned their back on them and they vote with another candidate, Priebus will suddenly face an opposition that could unify against him. His ceiling—his vote-getting potential—will become starkly, perhaps insurmountably, evident.
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