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Despite Steele’s rough start, many in GOP optimistic

The new party chair has been mired in internal feuds, but expectations for next elections are building.

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At a Monitor breakfast last Friday, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky also predicted an upswing for the embattled new party chair. "I think it is safe to say that Michael Steele has gotten off to kind of a rough start," Senator McConnell said. "But we think he will hit his stride soon."

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McConnell was also upbeat about the next election cycle.

"I am optimistic that we are going to do a lot better in candidate recruitment in this cycle than we have in the last two," he said, noting how President Bush's unpopularity made recruitment difficult for the past two elections.

In a way, Republican strategists have no choice but to be optimistic about Steele's continued presence as party chair. Ousting the party's first black chairman could be disastrous for the GOP's image. Moreover, the mechanics of an ouster are difficult: A two-thirds vote against Steele would be required at a meeting of the 168-member national committee, not just the executive committee. GOP chairs serve two-year terms, so if the 2010 midterms prove disastrous for Republicans, Steele could be voted out at the 2011 winter meeting.

In the meantime, Steele appears to have weathered the latest storm in his short tenure. By the weekend, talk among Republican leaders had turned back to criticizing Obama's budget. Social conservative activists were also largely silent, having said their piece about Steele's abortion comment.

Still, Steele has his work cut out in smoothing over his relationship with the party's religious conservatives, a key constituency, says John Green, an expert on politics and religion. Steele faces a problem that many party leaders encounter: "He has to keep the base happy, but he also has to expand the base," says Mr. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

"I suspect religious conservatives will come [around], because it's in their interest to do so, just as many of the religious-right figures came around to supporting [GOP presidential nominee] John McCain," says Green. "But of course the issue is how fervent will they be."

Though Steele is reducing his media exposure for a while, being a party spokesman remains a key part of his job, and he can't hide from the media altogether, nor would he want to, given his gregarious, talkative nature.

Still, says John Gizzi, political editor of the conservative weekly Human Events, Steele might consider the track record of one of his predecessors, Ray Bliss, who served as RNC chairman from 1965 to 1968.

Mr. Bliss "sat in a back office, chain-smoked, and raised money and recruited candidates by reading society, business, and sports pages from key districts he thought Republicans could win," notes Mr. Gizzi. One of his finds was Jack Kemp, a former quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, who was elected to the House and became a GOP star.

Bliss "let congressional leaders and the rising party farm team do the speaking," Gizzi says. "The party revived dramatically."