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A bumpy beginning for new RNC Chairman Michael Steele

His first weeks have been fraught with missteps, most notably his criticism of talk radio host Rush Limbaugh. Still, he needs to be given sufficient time to rebuild the GOP, his supporters say.

March 08, 2009|James Oliphant

WASHINGTON — This hasn't been the smoothest rollout for the new chairman of the beleaguered Republican Party, Michael S. Steele. As debuts go, it may rank right up there with New Coke and the movie "Waterworld."

Steele celebrated his ascension as head of the Republican National Committee by almost immediately picking a fight with Rush Limbaugh -- the one party icon still standing amid the rubble of stinging election defeats in 2006 and 2008 that cost Republicans control of Congress and then the White House.

An African American, Steele raised eyebrows by using street lingo in promising a "hip-hop" GOP outreach effort that would be "off the hook" and saying he would show one Republican politician some "slum love." More problematic, Steele suggested that the RNC might not support several moderate Senate incumbents in primary races, remarks he quickly withdrew.

For a party that is looking for fresh guidance, Steele's first weeks have left more than a few faithful wondering if their promised new direction might head them straight off a cliff. But Steele's supporters say he has undertaken a monumental challenge and needs to be given sufficient time to accomplish his work.

A former lieutenant governor of Maryland and unsuccessful Senate candidate, Steele has the arduous task of rebuilding the Republican brand from the ground up.

Polls show that there is ample work to do. According to a recent New York Times/CBS News survey, Americans identifying themselves as Democrats outnumber those who say they are Republicans by 10 percentage points, the largest gap in party identification in 24 years.

Even as Republicans on Capitol Hill say they have made themselves politically relevant by taking a strong stand against President Obama's economic policies, Obama's approval ratings have stayed consistently high. GOP numbers continue to fall. And a fight last week within the party involving Steele and Limbaugh probably hasn't helped.

Steele criticized Limbaugh on a late-night talk show, calling the conservative talk show radio host "an entertainer" whose show is "incendiary" and "ugly." He also disputed the notion that Limbaugh was leading the GOP.

Limbaugh, along with his ardent supporters -- some of the party's most dedicated rank-and-file -- blew a gasket.

"It's time, Mr. Steele, for you to go behind the scenes and start doing the work that you were elected to do instead of trying to be some talking-head media star, which you're having a tough time pulling off," Limbaugh said.

Katon Dawson, the runner-up to Steele in the party vote to select a new chairman, said the dispute with Limbaugh was regrettable because the RNC risked alienating the "$25-to-$100" donors who are the "heartbeat" of the party.

Steele ended up apologizing to the radio host, and Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina GOP, said it would be up to Limbaugh, not Steele, to help "heal that wound."

But Dawson said he supports Steele, saying "he has the promise to be a tremendous chairman."

Steele's closest aides acknowledge that perhaps he should have spent less time early in his tenure trying to be the public face of the party and more time working to rebuild the party organization.

"We are going to try again to be a more bottom-up organization," said Curt Anderson, a political consultant recruited by Steele to help restructure the RNC.

The first act has been gutting the staff in Washington. Anderson said that the RNC was still staffed at "presidential levels" when Steele took over, failing to reflect the party's minority status. Steele also inherited an expensive polling project conducted after the election, Anderson said, that ended up telling the party what it already knew: It was deeply unpopular nationally.

Since then, more than 70 people have lost their jobs at the RNC, and Steele currently has no senior staff. Last week, the organization lost Cyrus Krohn, who was credited with modernizing the GOP online effort.

Krohn's departure was curious because Steele had spoken often about the need to compete technologically with Democrats. A Silicon Valley veteran, Krohn increased the party's e-mail list from 1.8 million to 12 million in little more than a year.

Not long ago, the RNC was viewed as a model of political efficiency and a strategic powerhouse that mastered the craft of getting voters to the polls on election day. Obama's presidential campaign was modeled in part on RNC tactics -- but he took them one better.

Anderson says as much. "There's nobody I know who can say we didn't get our clock cleaned in our use of technology in 2008," he said.

The RNC did make one key appointment last week, naming California Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring the head of the State Party Chairmen Committee, meaning he will help coordinate strategy on the state level.

"We will be focused on being the clearinghouse for the exchange of research, best practices and ideas among state Republican leaders," Nehring said.

Steele will take his time filling slots at the RNC, Anderson said. One thing in his favor: The committee is being flooded by resumes. These are hard times for Republican job-seekers.

"We didn't get in this in a month, and we're not getting out of this in a month," Steele said.

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joliphant@tribune.com

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