Steele Debates 4 Challengers For GOP Chairmanship
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Republicans may have a consensus when it comes to the Health Care Law, but they're still deciding on their party's leadership. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, yesterday, defended his record. He was at a debate with four challengers who hope to replace him.
Steele's two-year tenure has been marked by controversy and fundraising troubles, but he insists that big Republican gains in November show he's doing his job well.
NPR's Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA: Steele says he's earned another term as chairman, that the party's recent electoral success is his success. His critics disagree. They say those victories came despite Michael Steel.
Among his challengers is Ann Wagner, a former ambassador and Missouri Republican Party official. Here's how she opened the debate yesterday.
Ms. ANN WAGNER (Candidate for Chairman of Republican National Committee): How can an organization that has lost its credibility; is $20 million in debt; is steeped in mismanagement, distractions, and drama, actually lead us into the next election cycle of 2012 and offer change?
GONYEA: Steele, has been accused of lavish spending on travel and on office remodeling, money that could have gone to campaigns. He wasn't attacked directly on that at yesterday's debate, but it was the subtext to statements like this from candidate Maria Cino, who is a former Bush administration official.
Ms. MARIA CINO (Candidate for Chairman of Republican National Committee): The first thing is get our fiscal house in order. We have to practice what we preach as Republicans, and I think we need to get our debt under control.
GONYEA: Steele defended himself.
Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, Republican National Committee): My record stands for itself. We won.
GONYEA: This debate was the second one held in the past month. But it's the first that Steele participated in. The questions weren't all about how to run the organization. At one point, a moderator asked the candidates how many guns they own.
Unidentified Man (Moderator): Starting with Maria Cino, how many guns do you own?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CINO: None.
GONYEA: Michael Steele also said none. Wisconsin GOP chairman, Reince Pribius, said five; Michigan's former Republican Party Chair, Saul Anuzis, said four. Then came Anne Wagner.
Ms. WAGNER: Well, I may surprise y'all, but we just got a new gun safe for Christmas, and I think there are about 16 in there. Every - everything from pistols and a Glock to shotguns, rifles; and my son, who's on a combat weapons team at WestPoint, has an assault rifle on status report too. So there you go.
(Soundbite of applause)
GONYEA: They were also asked about a possible Sarah Palin run for the White House.
Unidentified Man (Moderator): Mr. Steele, can Sarah Palin win a general election?
Mr. STEELE: Yes.
GONYEA: Like Steele, the others all nodded and quickly answered yes. There was a lot of talk about what it means to be a Republican. Each spoke of family values, shrinking the government, lower taxes, a strong military. At one point, the moderator asked what disqualifies someone from being a Republican. Here's Reince Priebus.
Mr. REINCE PRIEBUS (Candidate for Chairman of Republican National Committee): If you're pro-abortion, pro-stimulus, pro-GM bailout, pro-AIG, well, you know, guess what? You might not be a Republican.
GONYEA: Michael Steele had a different view.
Mr. STEELE: But we cannot be a party that sits back with a litmus test and excludes. And the national chairman cannot go into a state and say, you're less Republican than you are; therefore, I will not talk with you and only talk with you.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. STEELE: That is not the Republican Party I joined at 17 years old.
GONYEA: Steele is the incumbent and an underdog in this race. The decision will be made by the 168 delegates who have a vote, most are state Republican Party officials. You need 85 to win. Now at one point yesterday, Steele seemed to acknowledge what many say is his likely fate in this election.
Mr. STEELE: Because all of us at some point are going to need to retire - it's probably sooner than later for some - and the reality of it is that we need to - we need to make certain that the next generation is prepared and ready to step up.
GONYEA: The RNC election takes place next week.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.
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