6 Candidates Compete For GOP Party Chairman

Republicans are searching for their next party chairman. The six candidates participated in a debate sponsored by the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform. The Republican National Committee will meet in three weeks to choose one of the six men.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

With election season over, Democrats and Republicans are getting new party chairmen to gear up for the next election cycle. The Democrats have already made their choice, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine. He was an early supporter of President-elect Barack Obama. Now the Republicans are searching for their next party chair. As NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: After losing Congress and the White House, the Republicans are licking their wounds and trying to figure out the future direction of their party. Yesterday,the six candidates for party chair participated in a debate sponsored by the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, where former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele said he believes the glass is still half full.

Mr. MICHAEL S. STEELE (Former Lieutenant Governor, Maryland): It's not the easiest thing in the world right now to be a Republican, as you probably know. So we're here to prove that it is. All that noise about this party dying, or is at death's door, bunk. Don't believe it. We're alive. We're well. We're conservative. We're strong. And we're moving forward.

LIASSON: Steele is African-American. So is Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state. It's the first time two African-Americans have ever run for GOP chair.

Mr. KEN BLACKWELL (Former Ohio Secretary of State): We have to reinvigorate the base and push power, responsibility and resources back to state and county parties. We must abandon the 28-state strategy that has been in play.

LIASSON: Many Republicans share Blackwell's concern that the party is shrinking to a small Southern base. Then the moderator, conservative activist Grover Norquist, asked the candidates, who was their least favorite Republican president? Only Blackwell was willing to answer in a way that criticized George W. Bush.

Mr. BLACKWELL: Hoover, because he opened the door to big government activism. And I think that unfortunately President Bush in the last few months has opened up the door to Mr. Obama's big government.

LIASSON: There were few clashes about the future ideological direction of the party. Instead, there was a chorus of calls to get back to basic conservative principles. Smaller government, strong defense, individual freedom. And Norquist tested anther one of the candidates' conservative credentials.

Mr. GROVER NORQUIST (Conservative Activist): How many guns do you own?

(Soundbite of crowd laughing)

Unidentified Man: Four handguns and two rifles.

Mr. STEELE: Too many to count.

(Soundbite of crowd laughing)

Mr. BLACKWELL: Seven, and I'm good.

(Soundbite of crowd laughing)

Mr. NORQUIST: Chip?

Mr. CHIP SALTSMAN (Former Campaign Manager, 2008 Presidential Candidate Mike Huckabee): In my closet at home, I've got two 12-gauges, a 20-gauge, three handguns and a 30-aught-six, and I'll take you on anytime, kid.

(Soundbite of crowd laughing)

LIASSON: They all agreed that the party had to do better in areas where the Democrats had bested them. Outreach to young voters and Hispanics, both groups Republicans lost two-to-one this fall. They also acknowledged the need to catch up to the Democrats in the use of new technology.

Mr. NORQUIST: Do you use Twitter, and how many followers do you have? Michael.

Mr. STEELE: I do, and the last time I checked it was about three-four hundred.

Mr. NORQUIST: Yes.

Mr. BLACKWELL: Yes, I do Twitter, but let me just say that I have 4,000 friends on Facebook. That's probably more than these two guys put together. But who's counting?

LIASSON: In three weeks, the members of the Republican National Committee will meet in Washington and choose one of these six men, who also included Saul Anuzis, the Republican State Chair of Michigan, Mike Duncan the incumbent RNC Chair, Chip Saltsman, the former campaign manager for 2008 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, and Katon Dawson, the chairman of the South Carolina state party who made this promise to his fellow Republicans.

Mr. KATON DAWSON (Chairman, Republican Party of South Carolina): Our party will be ready to go into battle in 2010. We will be ready. We'll be organized. We will not get caught sleeping again. We as a party will be ready to go to battle against the Democrats.

LIASSON: Mara Liasson. NPR News, Washington.

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