GOP Officials To Discuss Election Strategy, Steele

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele is under fire for mismanagement and poor fundraising. His future is sure to be a topic in New Orleans over the next few days, as Republicans gather there for meetings to plan for the 2010 election. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Don Gonyea, who is in New Orleans.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Some 3,000 Republican activists from around the country are gathering in New Orleans for the next four days. They'll be talking strategy for this fall's midterm elections and looking ahead to the 2012 presidential race.

The Southern Republican Leadership Conference will also feature embattled Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. This is the first big GOP gathering since a scandal broke last week over a $2,000 RNC tab at a bondage-themed strip club. That's only the latest controversy the party's had to deal with Steele's tenure.

And NPR's Don Gonyea joins us to talk about all this from New Orleans. Don, where do you think things stand right now for Michael Steele? How secure is his job?

DON GONYEA: Well, he's actually gotten some good news in the past day or two. He's gotten a vote of confidence from Sarah Palin and from Newt Gingrich, so that helps tamp things down a bit. Still, the expense report from the strip club in West Hollywood was not the first problem under Mr. Steele. There have been itemized reports detailing a pattern of lavish spending, including the use of private jets and limos, all of course in a very tough economy. So, the symbolism for the party for him is not good.

He's also been giving paid been giving out paid speeches. Something party chairmen don't usually do. They're there supposed to be raising money for the party, not for themselves. And it is troubling to a lot of Republicans that the organization, the RNC, has less money on hand, than it did at the same point four years ago, in order to help Republican candidates.

But the other side of it, it's problematic to dump him in an election year. There's no big call for him to be fired, his two-year term is up at year's end. Some have suggested he resign, but the forcing him out would be a major distraction. So he'll probably stay where he is unless another shoe drops.

BLOCK: Well, is part of his mission there in New Orleans to shore up support amid those calls that he step down?

GONYEA: Yes. And he does have a formal speech that he will give Saturday afternoon to the delegates here. Expect it to be a fire-up-the-troops kind of thing. Don't be surprised, though, if he takes on his critics directly. He does like to do that. So there's that. But the other thing he is doing here is the RNC is also hosting his own big fundraiser alongside this Southern Republican Leadership Conference.

They're inviting speakers who are attending the main gathering to come over and help bring in some extra dollars to help with campaigns. So, he is going to be very, very visible around here.

BLOCK: Now, I understand that some of Michael Steele's critics are going to be speaking at the conventions, specifically Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. Would he and others be expected to keep up the pressure on Michael Steele?

GONYEA: Yes, though, perhaps not in a big, public way. But Perkins comes, of course, from the Christian conservative segment of the GOP. And since the incident at the adult club, he has not been shy about voicing his displeasure with Steele. And he's gone so far as to say that Republicans should not donate to the RNC period, that they should give directly to candidates they like.

Again, we don't know if he'll address that in his speech or if he'll focus solely on, you know, the opportunities presented in this year's election for Republicans and why it's important, he'll say, that Republicans seize back the Congress.

BLOCK: Don, what are you hearing from Republicans about how much of a liability or a distraction this has become for their efforts to pick up seats in November?

GONYEA: It's been a distraction, but they still think everything is working for them. Republicans are much more energized than Democrats. Poll after poll after poll shows that. But they do want this story to recede to the background so they can get about the business of very vocally opposing the policies of Barack Obama.

BLOCK: NPR's Don Gonyea in New Orleans. Don, thanks so much.

GONYEA: It's my pleasure.

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