Can GOP Still Enjoy Its Retreat?

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The Republican National Committee sets to work this weekend. But a new poll shows the GOP can only claim significant voter majorities in a handful of states. We explore what's in store at the RNC's annual weekend retreat and who they're considering as a new party chair.


In Washington this week, Republicans aren't just talking about the economy. They're also talking about their image and the future. Republican National Committee members are meeting today to elect a party chairman. There are currently five candidates in the running. Party officials expect the process to take all day. Here now to talk about who may be the future face of the RNC is NPR News Analyst Juan Williams. Hi, Juan.


COHEN: So, until recently, there were six candidates, but one of them, former Tennessee GOP Chair Chip Saltsman, recently withdrew his candidacy. He got into a bit of trouble late last year. Remind us what happened there.

WILLIAMS: He put out something of a Christmas card, thought to be, in his opinion, humorous, using a parody that had appeared on "The Rush Limbaugh Show." And the parody was one that took on President Obama and picked up on an L.A. Times opinion piece that had been titled "Barack, The Magic Negro." Well, once that got out, it was felt that it was racially insensitive, if not insulting to the president-elect, and caused him some problems, even among his Republican brethren. And so he - now, he's dropped out.

COHEN: So, who are the five remaining candidates? And who's likely to be the favorite?

WILLIAMS: Well, a favorite, as we speak, Alex, is Mike Duncan, who's the current RNC chairman. They sort of pile up endorsements going into this thing before it began, and he had the most at about 36. We've got here a universe of voters that's really quite specific. It's about 150 voters who are in this club, if you will - this RNC club. The problem with him is he's not quite a powerful speaker, and he's seen as totally in line with what was going on under George Bush, and he was Karl Rove's choice to run the RNC.

Then you have Katon Dawson, who's the South Carolina Party chair, and he has the second most endorsements. Republicans in South Carolina have done very well. But he's someone who also had a race problem. He was a member of a whites-only country club. He resigned last fall.

Then you have two African-Americans - Michael Steele and Ken Blackwell. Steele's the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, Blackwell the former Ohio secretary of state. Steele is someone who has a different kind of message, more moderate, if you will. Blackwell appeals to social conservatives.

And the last of the five is Saul Anuzis, who's the Michigan State Party chair and a very tech-savvy, former union guy. But Republicans in the state have not done very well, even with the sagging economy and all the problems in Michigan. So, the question there is who's going to come in second to Duncan throughout the day, and is it possible that somebody will be able to pull together all of the opposition to Duncan as the established leader of a party that has not been faring well in elections, went through two terrible cycles?

COHEN: Once they've picked their new chair, RNC officials will head to Hot Springs, Virginia for their annual meeting. And there's been a lot of talk among the party that it's time for some change. Do you think there will be any change? Will you see any results of that after this meeting?

WILLIAMS: Well, we've seen some of this take shape actually in Washington over the last week in the arguments over the stimulus package, Republicans trying get back to the idea of small government, restrained spending and, of course then, the cultural messages that always begin with opposition to abortion, pro-life messages.

So, that's the kind of heart and soul, and the question is now, where do you go beyond that, especially with the universe of voters changing in the country - fewer white men, who were the heart of the Republican Party, and more women and more African-Americans and Hispanics and more immigrants for certain? How do you attract those people to a Republican Party and make Republican candidates, especially on the national level, viable?

COHEN: NPR News Analyst Juan Williams. Thanks, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Alex.

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