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For the past two years, the Republican Party has been led by its chairman, Michael Steele. His tenure has been marked by controversy and criticism, even as the party made historic gains in November's midterm elections. Steele is now seeking re-election to another two-year term. That election will be held next week. And Steele has not one, but four, longtime Republican challengers.
The candidates held a debate this afternoon in Washington, and NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea was there.
DON GONYEA: It has been a rocky couple of years for Michael Steele. He's been targeted for lavish spending, for taking large speaking fees. There was that incident where staffers used RNC credit cards to entertain potential donors at a strip club. And there's the committee's financial state - it's in deep debt.
In today's debate, the first candidates to make an opening statement was former ambassador Ann Wagner, of Missouri. And her first words were directed at Steele's leadership.
Ms. ANN WAGNER (Candidate, Republican National Committee Chairman): It is time for some tough love at the Republican National Committee. How can an organization that has lost its credibility, is $20 million in debt, is steeped in mismanagement, distractions and drama, actually lead us into the next election cycle of 2012 and offer change?
GONYEA: Steele defended his record.
Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, Republican National Committee): Im a glass-half-full kind of guy. I don't see the crisis as some may see it.
GONYEA: And, he says, all you need to do is look at the results.
Mr. STEELE: My record stands for itself. We won.
GONYEA: The event was sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform; the conservative website the Daily Caller; and the Susan B. Anthony List, which backs female candidates who oppose abortion rights. All of the RNC candidates today spoke of improving fundraising, and of promoting candidates who have traditional, conservative Republican values.
Each backed the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. Each promised to bring young people into the Republican Party, and to harness new technology.
At one point, they were asked what positions would disqualify someone from being a Republican. Saul Anunzis is the former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.
Mr. SAUL ANUNZIS (Candidate, Republican National Committee Chairman): I would kind of use Ronald Reagan's line that if someones with us 80 percent of the time, then theyre probably a Republican.
GONYEA: Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus took a much tougher stand on the same question.
Mr. REINCE PRIEBUS (Chairman Candidate, Republican National Committee): If you're pro-abortion, pro-stimulus, pro-GM bailout, pro-AIG - well, you know, guess what? You might not be a Republican.
GONYEA: That prompted a reaction from Michael Steele, who said the party risks losing if it sets rules to keep people out.
Mr. STEELE: This country is much bigger than we think it is sometimes. I see the job of the chairman as the standard bearer - is to one, uphold that platform; but to recognize that everyone who comes into this party will have some problem with this platform. But we cannot be a party that sits back with a litmus test, and excludes.
GONYEA: Steele was low-key throughout the debate, a contrast to the fiery personality he often reveals in interviews and on cable television. There were questions about how the new party leader would reach out to the Tea Party, which has been quick to challenge Republicans it doesn't see as being sufficiently conservative.
Candidate Maria Cino, herself a former longtime RNC official, put it this way.
Ms. MARIA CINO (Chairman Candidate, Republican National Committee): If we've learned anything from the 2010 elections from our friends in the tea parties - is that we have to be focused. We have to stick to our principles of cutting taxes and cutting spending.
GONYEA: Only 168 people will vote in the RNC election. Delegates are mostly state party officials. You need 85 to win; the vote takes place next week.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.
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