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Michael Steele Faces Tough Re-Election Battle

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Michael Steele Faces Tough Re-Election Battle

Michael Steele Faces Tough Re-Election Battle

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

This is the day when Michael Steele learns if he gets to keep his job. The Republican National Committee meets today to elect a chairman. Steele is the incumbent and he faces four challengers, although his party did very well in last fall's elections. All challengers have promised to reverse fundraising troubles the RNC has had during Steele's tenure, and each challenger is pledging to avoid the steady stream of controversy that marked Steele's two years as head of the party.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

(Soundbite of a crowd)

DON GONYEA: It was one final day of campaigning yesterday ahead of today's vote at the RNC's annual winter meeting. In the wide corridor of a hotel convention complex just outside Washington, Michael Steele seemed relaxed as he worked to hang onto his job. He walks as he talks.

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, Republican National Committee): You never know how these things go. But the reality of it is it's going to take a little bit of work. And speak of the devil, here's my man.

Unidentified Man: How are you?

Mr. STEELE: How's things this morning.

Unidentified Man: Doing great.

Mr. STEELE: Look, you're still eating, man. Come on.

GONYEA: Steele is as easy going as ever - polite, but not inclined to handicap his chances with a couple of reporters.

Mr. STEELE: I've gotten out of the prediction business a long time ago. So, it's good seeing you guys.

GONYEA: Thank you. Thanks.

Mr. STEELE: All right, take care.

GONYEA: But those following the RNC race closely say Steele is a long shot. His time as the first African-American RNC chairman was high-profile, but not in a good way. There were questions about his spending, his paid speaking engagements, and his troubles raising money, even in a big Republican year.

That last item may have been the most grievous offense. Frustration with Steele grew and grew among RNC members, and state party officials who complained all last year about shrinking RNC resources.

Reid Wilson is the editor-in-chief of the National Journal's Hotline.

Mr. REID WILSON (Editor-in-Chief, National Journal's Hotline): There was a serious lack of funding here, because Michael Steele was not able to pull in the same kind of donations that the RNC has seen in previous years.

GONYEA: And today the RNC has a $15 million debt to pay off, even before it starts raising money for next year's elections. The perceived frontrunner in this race for the chairman's job is Wisconsin Republican Party Chair Reince Priebus, a man who supported Steele two years ago.

But right now, Priebus has only about half the commitments from RNC members that he needs to win.

Also running is Ann Wagner. She's a longtime party activist and a former U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. Wagner acknowledges that a lot of big money for last year's congressional elections bypassed the RNC. But she insists the role of the Republican National Committee has not diminished.

Ms. ANN WAGNER (Candidate, Republican National Committee Chairman): I still think it is the premier political institution in America, and would say even the world. And there are some things that it can and must do well, and especially during a presidential cycle year.

GONYEA: She notes that only the RNC can legally coordinate with state party organizations, or coordinate primaries, or organize the national presidential nominating convention coming up in August of 2012.

The other two candidates in the mix today are former Bush administration official Maria Cino, and veteran Michigan Republican Party official Saul Anuzis.

Under the rules, balloting continues until someone gets over half the votes. So with 168 voting members, 85 votes wins. There is no requirement for candidates getting a low number of votes on the early ballots to drop out. Ballot after ballot will be held until there's a winner.

Here's candidate Saul Anuzis.

Mr. SAUL ANUZIS (Candidate, Republican National Committee Chairman): I think clearly the first question will be whether or not we re-elect Steele. But I do think there's consensus for change. And I think we'll probably go I would not be surprised if we go five to six ballots. And if some of the candidates have different strategies to stay in longer, it could go six, seven, eight.

GONYEA: Hotline's Reid Wilson says this year, RNC delegates are looking for a good manager and a great fundraiser. But they may be looking for something else, as well.

Mr. WILSON: After the last two years of excitement, boring would be a benefit to a lot of members.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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