Washington - The most heated political campaign at the moment may be the one for Republican national chairman, but it's no ordinary contest.
How could it be, when one of the biggest campaign events is supposedly a Christmas party at Vice President Dick Cheney's official residence? When it takes only 85 votes to win? Or that, with the election just over a month away, the field of candidates is still murky?
At least a half-dozen Republicans have been eyeing the job, which pays about $200,000 a year. Setbacks suffered by the party in the last two national elections make the position unusually attractive, since history strongly favors a Republican rebound in 2010.
Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is among the front-runners, in part because he's a bigger celebrity than others who have announced. But he's gotten caught in the party's never-ending abortion wars and may have been hurt in the process.
Steele, who ran for the Senate in 2006 as a fiscal conservative opposed to abortion rights, is aggressively promoting himself as a media-savvy voice who can help his party win the daily communications battle against the Democrats. That could be a significant advantage,, since the Republicans are about to be without a national spokesman for the first time in a long while.
Republicans "will not have success without a party chairman who is very skilled at dealing with the media," contends Steele's campaign Web site,steeleforchairman.com.
Strangely or not, an articulate spokesman may not be what the electorate - the 168 men and women on the Republican National Committee - wants most in a new party leader. The ability to score points on TV is just one of several qualifications the next chairman will need, and not necessarily the one that will matter most to committee members.
"This is a multimillion-dollar business," said Scott Reed, who ran Haley Barbour's successful campaign for national chairman after the 1992 election, the last time the Republicans lost the White House. "It's a combination of communicating skills, comfort with donors, policy knowledge and the ability to run the building"- the party's headquarters on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Privately, one RNC member compared the chairman's contest to a race for class president and explained that catering to the needs of the committeemen and women may be more important than having a vision for the party.
The election will take place during the committee's winter meeting, Jan. 28-31 in Washington.
Right now, the favorite appears to be the incumbent, Mike Duncan, a mild-mannered Kentuckian who was picked for the job by President George W. Bush in 2007. He has not announced his intentions, but he's expected to jump into the race this week.
Duncan got a boost the other day when Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss won an important runoff victory in Georgia, blocking Democrats from gaining a super-majority in the Senate. The RNC invested heavily in Chambliss' campaign, and Duncan was on hand Election Night to claim credit.
Some Republicans think it's time for a new face to lead their party, especially after the drubbing the party took in the 2008 election. History, though, suggests otherwise.
The party job may well go to Duncan or another insider, since the committee tends to favor one of its own when there's no Republican president to dictate the choice. Announced candidates include Saul Anuzis and Katon Dawson, the state party chairmen from Michigan and South Carolina, respectively, and Chip Saltsman, a former Tennessee party chairman who ran Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign.
Steele is regarded as an outsider by many, if not most, national committee members. They weren't around when he was an RNC member, as Maryland's Republican Party chairman, from 2000 to 2002.
Steele has been pursuing his campaign through private talks with committee members and appearances on media outlets like Fox News Channel (he's a paid contributor) and Hugh Hewitt's talk radio show. Steele did not respond to repeated interview requests to his spokeswoman.
His critics, mainly social conservatives, are attacking his ties to party moderates. Joyce Terhes, a veteran committeewoman from Maryland, sent an e-mail to other RNC members last month expressing anger about "an anonymous mudslinging campaign" which claimed that Steele "is not as pro-life as he needs to be." Terhes noted that Steele was endorsed by the National Right to Life Committee in his 2006 Senate campaign and called him "a staunch pro-lifer."