RNC Race Reflects Party's Troubles

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Six candidates are continuing their campaign for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. Meanwhile, a fourth Republican senator has announced he will not run in 2010, suggesting how difficult the job of reversing the GOP's electoral momentum may be.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

At the end of this month, there will be one more election for a big Washington job. This one is to decide who will be the next chairman of the Republican National Committee. The Republicans are facing an uphill climb after the November election, but still six men are competing to lead the RNC. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is here to tell us about this race. Mara, first of all, tell us about the contenders.

MARA LIASSON: Well, as you said, there are six men. Two of them are African-Americans. That's the first time that's ever happened in the Republican Party. Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland; Ken Blackwell, the former secretary of state of Ohio; and then there's Mike Duncan who is the incumbent RNC chair; and there's Katon Dawson who's the current chair of the South Carolina State Republican party; Chip Saltsman, the former Tennessee state chair; but also campaign manager for Mike Huckabee's presidential race, Saul Anuzis, who's the Republican state chair of Michigan.

NORRIS: So, what are, I mean, the essential issues in this race?

LIASSON: Well, you know, it's interesting. This has not been an ideological battle. It's not been about taking the Republican Party in a different direction. It's really been about mechanics. A lot of the language that these men use when they get together and debate is reminiscent of the Democrats and Howard Dean. They talk about reconnecting with the grassroots, having a 50-states strategy, also using technology, catching up to the Democrats. Better they were asked in the debate that happened last week how many of them Twittered, and they all boasted about how many followers they had on their Twitter accounts and how many Facebook friends they had. So it's about kind of getting the Republican Party caught up to the Democrats and bring it into the 21st century.

NORRIS: So they're trying to raise their cool quotient when it comes to the Internet. They were also asked about a much more traditional Republican concern, guns and gun control. Let's take a listen before we go on.

(Soundbite of RNC candidates' debate)

Mr. GROVER NORQUIST (Moderator; Republican Activist): How many guns do you own?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MIKE DUNCAN (Incumbent RNC Chairman, Kentucky): Four handguns and two rifles.

Mr. KATON DAWSON (South Carolina GOP Chairman): Too many to count.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEN BLACKWELL (Former Ohio Secretary of State): Seven, and I'm good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHIP SALTSMAN (Former Tennessee GOP Chairman): In my closet at home, I've got two 12-gauges, a 20-gauge, three handguns, and a 30-06. And I'll take you on anytime, Ken.

LIASSON: What you just heard was Grover Norquist, who was the moderator of that debate, a Republican activist, asking the assembled candidates at a debate at the Press Club last week. As you can see, there really isn't any desire to depart from Republican orthodoxy, certainly not on the social issues like guns. But that also isn't one of the most important issues in this race.

NORRIS: Yeah, in the RNC, you better have an answer for that question.

LIASSON: Right.

NORRIS: Mara, the voting is done in secret, in this case. So it sounds like it's hard to figure out who has the inside track.

LIASSON: It's very hard. This is a very opaque process. It's only 168 voters, the members of the RNC. It will be done in secret, as you said. And it'll be done with multiple ballots. If somebody doesn't win decisively on the first one, so already you have candidates competing to be the second or third choice of these RNC members. But I do think that Michael Steele, who is the most prominent candidate running, because he was the lieutenant governor of Maryland, he's on television a lot, he's considered one of the top candidates. Ken Blackwell has strong support from social conservatives. And Mike Duncan, who is the incumbent RNC chair and you would think would be kind of the symbol of the past, could end up being a default choice for a lot of people if their first choices don't make it.

NORRIS: Who is seen as the person who can rally the troops for a party that has had some rough sliding after the 2008 election?

LIASSON: I think that's what this election is about. The RNC members have to decide who's going to be the best person to not just rally the troops, but organize the party and do all of the mechanical things that you need to do to get ready for the next cycle. The RNC is going to be pretty important because not only does it have to take a party that just was very badly beaten, but just today, we've gotten news of the fourth Republican retirement in the Senate, George Voinovich of Ohio. And he joined Sam Brownback of Kansas, Mel Martinez of Florida, and Kit Bond of Missouri. That's four open seats that the Republicans are going to try to defend, and that's a pretty uphill climb.

NORRIS: Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Mara Liasson.

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