A behind-the-scenes battle to take the reins of the Republican National Committee is taking off between former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.
Neither man will acknowledge his interest in the post, but Republicans close to each are burning up the phone lines and firing off e-mails to fellow party members in an effort to oust RNC Chairman Mike Duncan in the wake of the second consecutive drubbing of Republican candidates at the polls.
A bevy of backers for each man, neither of whom is an RNC member, say the committee needs a leader who can formulate a counter-agenda to President-elect Barack Obama's administration and articulate it on the national stage.
"The Republican National Committee has to ask itself if it wants someone who has successfully led a revolution," Randy Evans, Gingrich confidant and personal attorney based in Atlanta, told The Washington Times on Monday. "If it does, Newt's the one."
Former California Republican Party Chairman Shawn Steel told The Times that Mr. Steele, chairman of GOPAC, a national organization once headed by Mr. Gingrich, "wants to be Republican national chairman."
"I've talked to him many times, and he definitely wants it," said Mr. Steel.
Word of the fight over the RNC post came Monday as Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who is widely credited with developing the "50-state strategy" that helped elect Mr. Obama, is stepping down in January at the end of his term.
Republicans, especially state party leaders, have become envious of the organization and money that Mr. Dean's operation deployed in two victorious election cycles in which Democrats regained and expanded control of Congress and captured the White House.
Republicans agree that their national party is leaderless and in desperate need of someone who has the force of personality and history of accomplishments to command national attention to take on Mr. Obama. Someone is also needed to unite disparate factions that, even in the best of times, generate internal friction among themselves.
The Republican Governors Association meets in Miami this week, and the fortunes for Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Steele or Mr. Duncan, who is considering a re-election run, may surface at the four-day meeting.
"I have not made a final decision," Mr. Duncan told The Times late Monday. "I am calling members for advice and consideration."
Mr. Duncan is credited with having raised prodigious sums of money for the Republican candidates, including John McCain and Sarah Palin in the just-concluded 2007-08 election cycle.
One of the most active state party chairmen is frank about his chairmanship aspirations.
"I am phoning members," Saul Anuzis told The Times. "I am not aware of any calls Steele has made. I understand he was going to use his GOPAC conference [this week in Florida] to kick off his exploratory."
Mr. Gingrich, who heads two organizations, isn't campaigning for the RNC job personally.
"I am not a candidate for RNC - I am focused on American Solutions and the Center for Health Transformation," Mr. Gingrich said in an e-mail exchange with The Times on Monday. "I think that is where I will make the biggest contribution to creating a new generation of solutions and actually getting them implemented."
Mr. Gingrich is remembered as the former history teacher from Georgia who led the "Republican Revolution," first as a backbencher in the House during the Reagan era and eventually the electoral earthquake in 1994 that brought the Republican Party into the majority in the House and the Senate for the first time in 40 years.
Mr. Steele's conservative GOPAC was founded by former Delaware Gov. Pete du Pont as a national candidate recruitment and training organization for state and local offices.
Those like Shawn Steel who want to see Mr. Steele as the face of the party say he has the "it" required for national stardom - that he is tall, articulate and charismatic. Mr. Steele headed the Maryland Republican Party (and was the only black state party chairman) before being elected lieutenant governor and then losing his U.S. Senate race two years ago.
"I believe that the RNC ought to recruit a superstar," Mr. Steel said in a dear colleague letter to other RNC members. "That superstar should have the following qualities:
- instant media recognition and credibility;
- knowledge of where and how to raise money;
- the ability to convince members of Congress to take visionary pro-growth and pro-family stands, that when some members act like Democrats they do a great disservice to the party's brand."
On the Democratic side, Mr. Obama is expected to choose a successor to Mr. Dean, the one-time presidential candidate and former governor of Vermont. Mr. Dean's tactics initially had generated some tension in the party between party chairmen and Washington insiders, including Mr. Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who is considered the strategic architect of Democrats' congressional victories.