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At ‘rock bottom,’ GOP choosing leaders

- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2008

After a second election with big losses and no heir apparent, the Republican Party is looking for a messenger, House Republicans are girding for a leadership battle and relieved senators are standing pat after losing at least five seats.

"It's time for the losing to stop. And my commitment to you is that it will," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner said in a letter to his colleagues asking them to give him another term.

So far no challenger has emerged to fight the Ohio Republican, but changes are brewing for the rest of House Republicans' leadership, including a powerful challenge for the No. 2 slot by Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia; the resignation of the No. 3 Republican, Conference Chairman Adam H. Putnam of Florida; and a battle for policy committee chairman.

Four years removed from Karl Rove's dream of a lasting majority, two years after Republicans' last pummeling at the polls, and with the Bush era coming to a close, Republicans see the leadership fights as a chance to regroup and redefine themselves as a lean, mean minority that shed at least 19 seats Tuesday.

"We're rock bottom," said Rep. Thaddeus G. McCotter, Michigan Republican and the incumbent policy committee chief. "We are now free to start thinking again, acting again, and doing the right thing by what our constituents and our country need."

A free-for-all is brewing over who will run the Republican National Committee, and who among the slew of presidential also-rans is best positioned to become the national face of the opposition party.

"We are looking for energy innovation and someone who can win the argument," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, widely regarded as the best combination of idea man and successful insurgency leader in modern Republican history.

Fergus Cullen, chairman of New Hampshire Republicans, said Mr. Gingrich should be among the party's stars who audition for the job of "face of the GOP."

"It doesn't mean we're not going to vote any one of them off the island, but I'd like to see Sarah Palin try out, so to speak. And [Michigan Republican Party Chairman] Saul Anuzis. He's got good leadership qualities, focus, vision, good judgment," Mr. Cullen said, also mentioning former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson.

Mr. Steele was considered the most popular and likely choice for RNC chairman in 2004 but found himself vetoed by Mr. Rove, the Bush White House's political adviser.

Some RNC members who favored Mr. Steele then now think that naming him as a black Republican after a black Democrat has won the White House would make the Republican Party seem disingenuous. Others dismiss that argument and say Mr. Steele has all the requisite talents for the job in more abundance than virtually any other candidate for that slot.

The 168-member RNC will elect its new chairman at the committee's annual winter meeting Jan. 21 to 23 at the Washington Hilton Hotel. With no Republican president to pick the chairman, the vote is expected to be a free-for-all, featuring more than a half-dozen candidates.

Friends of Mike Duncan, the current chairman selected by the Bush White House, have begun floating his name for re-election. Mr. Duncan, a committee member from Kentucky, has proved a worthy fundraiser, garnering enough to help both John McCain's campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which was strapped for cash this cycle, though he is not well-known outside the RNC.

Along with the national fight, some Republicans have said they would like to see changes in congressional leadership, but no challengers to the top leader in either chamber have emerged.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's re-election to his Kentucky seat and Republicans' apparent success in holding on to enough senators to conduct a filibuster apparently has staved off any challenges to leadership, Republican aides said.

Still, one Republican, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, said the party leaders either must change their attitudes or be dumped.

"We have got to clean up, reform and rebuild the Republican Party before we can ask Americans to trust us again. This must begin with either a change of command at the highest levels or our current leaders must embrace a bold new direction," he said Tuesday night.

In the House, all the fire is being spent on lower-ticket races.

Mr. Cantor's bid for the whip's post, the No. 2 slot, sets up a challenge to the current whip, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri.

"He's begun the process of calling his colleagues to ask them for their support," said Rob Collins, a senior aide to Mr. Cantor.

Republican members said Mr. Blunt is also calling colleagues to sound them out on his chances. He has not publicly announced his plans.

With Mr. Putnam announcing Tuesday night that he would relinquish the conference chairmanship, it cleared the way for Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas to assume the No. 3 slot in the Republican hierarchy.

Rep. Michael C. Burgess, Texas Republican and the policy committee vice chairman, is challenging Mr. McCotter for the chairmanship.

He said the two men are friends but Republicans are "not doing well, and you do need to make a change or at least offer the conference members a choice."

Mr. Burgess said his goal is to make the policy committee a place where Republicans can hash out their proposals off-camera, then come together on solutions they can use to counter Democrats and a President Obama.

"We're hurting as a conference right now, we need to do something differently," he said.

Mr. McCotter said he will trust members' judgment on his term as policy committee chairman.

He also defended Mr. Boehner, saying House Republicans are realizing that his performance late in the campaign season helped them hold on to seats they were in danger of losing.

"With Boehner in the last two weeks, you've got a lot of members coming back because of what he did."

Another fight is expected over the chairmanship of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Republicans said Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas will take on Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who oversaw the committee for this election.

"The last two years have presented the NRCC challenges no one could have anticipated. Yet together, against all odds, we persevered and came through the fire stronger," Mr. Cole said.

Meanwhile, even in victory, Democrats face fights of their own.

The Associated Press reported that Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California will challenge Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee a powerful post that will oversee energy and environmental legislation.

Democrats also began jockeying to fill a leadership opening in anticipation that Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the caucus chairman, would be tapped to be Mr. Obama's chief of staff.

Likely contenders for the post include Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, assistant to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Rep. John B. Larson of Connecticut.

• S.A. Miller contributed to this report.

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