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Michael Steele: On his way out as Republican Party chair?

From the start, Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele was not only a historical figure in the GOP but a controversial one as well. Now he may be on the way out.

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In one memorable kerfuffle early in his tenure, Steele dismissed talk show host Rush Limbaugh as “an entertainer” whose program was “incendiary.” When Limbaugh bristled, Steele called to apologize – which only reinforced criticism from the left that the GOP was actually run by Limbaugh and other fire-breathing conservatives.

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Steele won no friends among social conservatives – an important segment of the GOP base – when he suggested that abortion was “an individual choice.”

It would have been a difficult time for any RNC chairman, particularly with the rise of the tea party movement. Tea partyers can be just as critical of establishment Republicans as they are of Democrats. In several recent races, tea party-backed primary election candidates ousted more mainstream Republicans – including incumbents.

In a recent letter to members of Tea Party Nation, one of the largest organizations in the movement, founder Judson Phillips wrote, “Capturing the chairmanship of the RNC is important to the Tea Party movement.”

"We need a conservative in as Chair of the RNC,” Phillips writes. “If not, we will end up with the same class of GOP knuckleheads that blew it so badly in 2006 and 2008.”

“If we do not win this battle for the heart and soul of the GOP, we will end up with either a second Obama term or perhaps as bad, a [Mitt] Romney presidency,” Phillips warns fellow tea partyers.

Those who’ve announced their candidacy (or been prominently mentioned) as the new RNC chair include: Gentry Collins, Wisconsin Republican Chair Reince Priebus, former RNC co-chair Ann Wagner of Missouri, Bush administration transportation official Maria Cino, tea party favorite Saul Anuzis of Michigan, and Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association.

According to an e-mail he sent, Steele will make his intentions known Monday in a private conference call with RNC members.

IN PICTURES: House Republicans retiring in 2010

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