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GOP Chairman Michael Steele defends his record: 'We won'

Struggling to capture a new term as head of the Republican National Committee, he takes sharp criticism from rivals at a forum.

January 04, 2011|By Paul West, Washington Bureau
  • Candidates for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, from left: Michael Steele, Saul Anuzis, Reince Priebus, Maria Cino and Ann Wagner.
Candidates for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee,… (Larry Downing, Reuters )

Reporting from Washington — Michael Steele defended his performance as Republican National Committee chairman under sometimes withering criticism Monday from rivals at a public forum.

Several challengers said that two years of what they characterized as mismanagement under Steele had left the national party organization deeply in debt and facing a crisis of credibility, especially with its major donors.

Steele, in a rare public appearance since the November election, sidestepped much of the criticism.

"My record stands for itself. We won," he said, referring to the GOP election victories. He said that if reelected, he would help the party build on those successes in the 2012 election.

The Republican National Committee will elect a new chairman at its winter meeting in Steele's home county in Maryland next week.

Steele is considered a clear underdog. He has failed to attract much support since his surprise decision last month to seek another term, according to several informal surveys of committee members.

Adding to the air of futility surrounding his candidacy were announcements by two top aides, committee spokesman Doug Heye and Chief of Staff Michael Leavitt, that they are leaving their jobs next week.

The forum, Steele's only scheduled appearance with his challengers, did not produce as many sparks as some had expected. His demeanor was low-key, and most of the discussion revolved around policy questions rather than internal party operations.

Steele was asked after the forum whether his rivals might have pulled their punches because each hopes to be the second choice of his RNC supporters if he falls short. Steele said he didn't know, but sarcastically described that as "a nice interpretation" of the event.

Wisconsin Republican Chairman Reince Priebus, a onetime Steele ally seen as a favorite in the contest, said he was "not running against anybody. I'm running for RNC chairman at a different time, different circumstances and different needs."

Ann Wagner, a former national committee official under President George W. Bush whose supporters include former Bush administration officials John Ashcroft and John Bolton, was more outspoken. She said the national party apparatus under Steele was "broken, and it needs to be fixed."

In addition to Priebus and Wagner, contenders include Michigan committeeman Saul Anuzis and another former RNC official from the Bush administration, Maria Cino.

During the forum, cosponsored by the Daily Caller political website, the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform and the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List, Steele did not respond at length to criticism of the party's financial condition, including a debt estimated at $20 million.

He took issue with complaints about the failure to fully fund get-out-the-vote efforts around the country, which may have limited Republican gains in 2010. He said he had made "a wise choice" to eliminate a past practice of sending congressional aides to help candidates in the closing days of a national campaign.

As the party's first African American chairman, Steele was asked whether he believed he had been subjected to a double standard based on race, as he previously has suggested. Steele rejected the premise of the question, saying it was a news media interpretation of his remarks.

"You've never heard those words leave my lips, nor have I defended my record that way," he said.

In a Washingtonian magazine interview in late 2009, however, Steele said: "I don't see stories about the internal operations of the [Democratic National Committee] that I see about this operation. Why? Is it because Michael Steele is the chairman, or is it because a black man is chairman?"

Despite the opposition to his reelection, Steele said after the session that he remained "very confident" of winning.

"Why else would I run?" he said.

paul.west@latimes.com

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