Steele's job remains secure, GOP officials say

March 15, 2009|By Paul West | Paul West,

Washington - Despite having come under repeated fire for his initial performance as national Republican chairman, Michael Steele is in no immediate danger of losing his job, according to party officials.

The former Maryland lieutenant governor has gotten tangled in a series of controversies, largely over remarks he made in news interviews, over everything from Rush Limbaugh's influence to his own views on abortion.

But even his sharpest critics and opponents of his candidacy for chairman say the Republican National Committee isn't likely to remove him before the end of his term, which runs through the 2010 elections.

Henry Barbour, a Republican committeeman from Mississippi, dismissed speculation that Steele's job might be at risk as "silliness."

"Look, he's only six weeks into this deal," said Barbour, who supported a different candidate, Katon Dawson of South Carolina, for chairman. "He got elected to a two-year term. It's that simple."

Another former Dawson supporter said that nothing that has happened so far would lead members of the Republican committee to move to oust Steele.

"I think there probably are some people, possibly including Michael, who wish that the start had been a little different. But I don't think anything has happened that would lead to as draconian a result as a vote of no confidence," said David Norcross, a veteran RNC member from New Jersey who also served as the party's general counsel.

"As long as I've been around, we've never held that kind of vote," he added. "It's really too soon to say that [Steele can't] do the job. I think that he's going to be fine."

Steele, who through his spokesman declined to respond to an interview request, has stumbled through his initial weeks on the job. His troubles stemmed in part from an effort to change the party's staid image and reach out to voters, such as fellow African-Americans, who have shunned the party and its candidates.

But Steele's execution was flawed, at best, prompting conflicts with Limbaugh, the conservative talk show king, and with his own past as an anti-abortion candidate for the Senate from Maryland in 2006.

In an interview with GQ, he seemed to suggest that he believed abortion was an individual choice, prompting outrage from anti-abortion activists and forcing him once again into damage control. He smoothed things over with social conservatives, some of whom have regarded him as suspiciously moderate all along, and issued a statement reiterating his opposition to abortion rights.

Meanwhile, he's been slow to fill top positions at party headquarters in Washington, where he dismissed scores of workers shortly after winning election in late January. That has renewed doubts among those inside the party who worry about his prowess as a manager and fundraiser, two of the most important tasks of a chairman.

Steele has passed the word to party officials that he plans to lower his public profile. Even critics acknowledge that they sense a tendency to be more disciplined.

An effort by a committeewoman to force Steele's resignation has gone nowhere, according to fellow RNC members.

Besides, officials said, dumping Steele, the party's first black chairman, would cause severe self-inflicted damage,reinforcing a notion that the party is hostile to minorities, whose support is seen as crucial to a Republican comeback.

"But that's not what's keeping him," said Norcross. "What's keeping him is a pretty general expectation that he's going to learn the ropes and be a good chairman."

Bill Greener, a Republican strategist and former RNC official, said Steele has acknowledged "a variety of difficulties" and is moving to put a new leadership team in place.

"While that has been happening, the rumor mill has been rife with all kinds of things," he said. "However, as all of this plays out, it will become clear that the RNC takes seriously the idea that when they elect a chairman, it is absolutely for a two-year term."

Republican insiders say that Steele would be more likely to resign than allow himself to be removed, if the situation became untenable. But that would require a series of events beyond what has taken place, including losing elections that Republicans thought they should have won, a sharp drop in fundraising and the failure of programs to make the party more competitive with the Democrats.

Still, the bumpy start has taken its toll, providing Democrats with an easy target for attack and doing little to help the image of a party that continues to suffer.

Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell, a former national Democratic chairman, used Steele's problems to take a whack at the Republicans.

"I think Michael Steele's days are numbered," the Democrat said last week. "I don't think the forces that control the Republican Party really want a big tent."

Republican officials have been uniform in their public support for Steele, but usually only when they are forced to state a view.

It's "safe to say that Michael Steele's gotten off to kind of a rough start, but we think he'll hit his stride soon," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the highest-ranking Republican in the nation, told reporters Friday.

Pressed to say what Steele needed to do to turn things around, McConnell replied tersely that if he had any advice for his party's national chairman, "I'll give it to him in private."

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