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Michael Steele: opponents at RNC debate say party 'needs to be fixed'

Michael Steele faces strong opposition in his bid to be reelected as chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC). At a debate Monday, his four opponents accused him of mismanagement.

By Staff writer / January 3, 2011

Michael Steele, candidate for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, attends a debate with other candidates at the National Press Club in Washington Monday.

Larry Downing/Reuters

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Washington

Michael Steele, who is running for reelection as chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), took a beating from four challengers Monday in a lively debate at the National Press Club.

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Nearing the end of a turbulent two-year term, Mr. Steele faced respectful but pointed attacks from the challengers, who repeatedly referred to an RNC debt of more than $20 million, an alienated donor base, and underfunded turnout efforts in the 2010 election.

The RNC “is broken and it needs to be fixed,” said Ann Wagner, one of the four challengers and former chairman of the Missouri Republican Party.

Steele fired back in self-defense, arguing that he brought the party back from being an “endangered species,” as a Time magazine cover put it in May 2009, to winning elections again – culminating in a resounding midterm success last November.

“I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy,” Steele said. “I don’t see the crisis as some may see it. I don’t see it as something where the alarm bells go off and you start throwing and remaking and blowing up, but what you do is get down to the burdensome work of building."

Unusual attention

Usually, the election of a national party chair barely gets much public notice. But Steele’s tenure has been so rocky, with verbal gaffes, financial woes, and widely reported mismanagement, that the political world is watching closely. The party did turn in an exceptional performance in the November midterms, but Steele critics say that’s only because outside groups and other party bodies, such as the Republican Governors Association, filled in the gaps.

Especially at the start of a presidential election cycle, that model is inadequate, say GOP strategists.

“Outside organizations can only do so much to fund turnout efforts,” says Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “And the lack of funding for the 72-hour turnout program was a significant problem for Republican candidates nationally in this last election.”

It’s “extraordinarily important” that the RNC chairman be competent in a broad range of areas, Mr. Ayres says. The top three: fundraising, managing a large and complex organization, and being an effective spokesman for the party.

Preaching inclusiveness

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