WASHINGTON – GOP Chairman Michael Steele defended his rocky two-year tenure anew Monday and asked for another term, boiling his re-election pitch down to this: "My record stands for itself. We won."
The embattled Republican National Committee chief was referring to coast-to-coast GOP victories that included winning control of the House. Still, as he debated four challengers ahead of next week's balloting by the 168-member panel, Steele added: "We can do more and we will do it better" and "the opportunity for all of us now is to go forward to continue to build on the successes that we've had."
Pressing for change and claiming fiscal mismanagement, Steele's opponents were unified in saying that fundraising ahead of the 2012 presidential election must be the primary focus of the next chairman in the wake of debt as high as $20 million. They also said the party leader must lure back to the RNC deep-pocketed donors who supported independent organizations out of a concern that Steele would misappropriate their money.
It was the second debate of the race, though the first that Steele attended. The brash former lieutenant governor of Maryland who won the chairmanship two years ago shocked many in Washington last month, including some of his closest aides, when he announced that he would seek a second two-year term after a first riddled with financial woes and verbal missteps that irked many GOP veterans.
Throughout the 90-minute face-off in downtown Washington, Steele's opponents were polite and didn't attack the chairman directly or by name, though all made clear they believed the RNC was in shambles and need to be revamped to prepare for the 2012 presidential election cycle when Republicans will take on President Barack Obama's likely re-election juggernaut.
Ann Wagner, a former Missouri state GOP chair and a former ambassador, called the RNC an organization that's lost credibility and is steeped in mismanagement, adding: "It is time for some tough love."
"We must get our fiscal house in order," rebuild a fundraising apparatus and strengthen state parties, said Maria Cino, a New York native who served in the Bush administration and planned the 2008 Republican nominating convention.
Saul Anuzis, a committeeman from Michigan who lost to Steele in 2009, said "the RNC is at a moment of crisis" and that he would be the best choice to "articulate the message, make the trains run on time, and raise the money necessary."
Wisconsin GOP chairman and RNC lawyer Reince Priebus, who ran Steele's 2009 bid but now is running to succeed the chairman, argued that he fits the bill, saying: "We need a chairman who is going to be an absolute workhorse, someone that's going to put their head down, someone that's going to bring unity to our Republican National Committee."
A fifth challenger, former RNC political director Gentry Collins, dropped out of the race before the debate.
Steele, himself, was measured in his responses to both overt and subtle jabs.
Gone was the bombast that got him in trouble over the past two years. In its place was a more measured, if not somber tone. It was tinged with what could have been a bit of gallows humor, when he noted during a question about attracting young people: "All of us at some point are going to need to retire — probably sooner than later for some."
At another point, Steele said his favorite book was "War and Peace" and then, after an up-and-down tenure, added ruefully: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." He flubbed the quote; it was from "A Tale of Two Cities," not "War and Peace."
More substantively, Steele acknowledged that paying back debts would be a high priority and said strengthening the party at the grass-roots level would be, too.
He staunchly stuck by his argument that the GOP, which has been pulled in different directions by far-right conservatives, tea party activists and everyone else, should be inclusive. "We cannot be a party that sits back with a litmus test that excludes, and the national chairman cannot go into a state and say you're less Republican than you are and therefore I will not talk with you and only talk with you," Steele said.
And he strongly stood behind the RNC's much-criticized get-out-the-vote programs, saying the strategy was to pour money into the states and "the idea that we didn't fully fund it is kind of a misnomer." He pointed to widespread victories as the result, though he ignored other variables including high unemployment and a treacherous political environment for Democrats, as well as a network of GOP-aligned outside groups that sprang up to fill in for the beleaguered RNC, which was spending money nearly as fast as it was raising it.