Steele Remorseful, Romney Victorious At Conference

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Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. Gerald Herbert/AP i

"The one mistake — the one mistake we cannot make this November — is to lose," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said. Gerald Herbert/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Gerald Herbert/AP
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. Gerald Herbert/AP

"The one mistake — the one mistake we cannot make this November — is to lose," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said.

Gerald Herbert/AP

Embattled Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele says he's made mistakes and wants to put a controversy over lavish spending habits behind him. He made his remarks Saturday at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, a gathering of several thousand GOP activists held in New Orleans over the past three days.

The conference was filled with speeches and breakout sessions, all designed to fire up activists and help the party take advantage of early polling that indicates Republicans could make big gains come the midterm elections in November.

Steele was the final speaker to take to the stage at this event late Saturday afternoon. He urged his audience to stay focused on the important work of winning back the U.S. House from Democratic control, but he also acknowledged that he has been a distraction from that effort.

"I'm the first here to admit that I've made mistakes, and it's been incumbent on me to take responsibility to shoulder that burden, make the necessary changes and move on," he told the audience.

Steele was referring to revelations that he spent RNC money — money from contributors — on private jets and limos. Then there was the embarrassing story about a $2,000 tab at a West Hollywood strip club. Steele was not at the club, but the incident was another black eye for the committee under his leadership.

He added that Republicans need to keep the focus on the Democrats and their record.

"The one mistake — the one mistake we cannot make this November — is to lose," he said.

Presidential Possibilities Promoted

While much of the talk at this GOP gathering was about how to take back the U.S. House — and to remove Nancy Pelosi from the speakership — there was also a lot of buzz about 2012 and taking back the White House from President Obama.

Everywhere you turned, there were t-shirts, posters, hats and buttons promoting some Republican who may or may not make a run for the party's presidential nomination.

One group calling itself Evangelicals for Romney worked the crowd outside the ballroom. Romney himself didn't go to New Orleans for the conference.

Another candidate from '08 who could run again, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, was also a no-show. But his political action committee handed out stickers at a booth in the exhibit hall.

Other potential candidates did show up, including Texas Congressman Ron Paul, former Governor Sarah Palin, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former U.S. Senator Rich Santorum. Also attending was current Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who used his speech to offer a word of caution.

"We have got to stay focused on the election of 2010," he said. "Don't worry about 2012 — we can't wait until 2012 to start taking our country back."

And The Winner Is...

Barbour's insistence that the focus be on this year's midterms did not dampen enthusiasm for a presidential straw poll designed to gauge preferences for 2012. There were nine names on the ballot and event organizers announced the results Saturday night.

Mitt Romney won, they announced. "It was incredibly close. We had a one vote difference." Ron Paul missed it by that much.

Next runners-up were Palin and Gingrich, each at 18 percent. No one else cracked double digits. In a similar straw poll at the big conservative political action conference in Washington in February, Ron Paul was the winner. Romney's Saturday victory was a surprise, considering he didn't attend.

"We didn't really expect to win, to be honest, but we're thrilled that we did," David French said, smiling. French had spent the conference handing out literature in support of Romney. "It's always better to win than not to win in politics."

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