Republican state party leaders are rebelling against new Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele for failing to dub President Obama and the Democrats as "socialists." And the rebels insist that the label matters.
Even though Mr. Steele has called his Democratic adversaries "collectivists," at least 16 state leaders say the term lacks the pejorative punch needed to sway public opinion and want all 168 members of the Republican National Committee to debate and vote on it.
It is the first time in memory that a sitting national leader of the Republican Party has faced a public challenge over his ideological leadership by conservative members of his own national committee.
Critics say it is also a sign of Mr. Steele's rocky start as RNC chairman and his continuing struggle to assert control of the party's message since his election in January.
"The threat to our country from the Obama administration cannot be underestimated," Indiana RNC member James Bopp Jr. wrote Wednesday in an e-mail to the full RNC membership. "They are proceeding pell-mell to nationalize major industries, to exponentially increase the size, power and intrusiveness of the federal government, to undermine free enterprise and free markets, to raise taxes to a confiscatory level."
Mr. Bopp, a constitutional law lawyer and hero to conservatives for arguing a Supreme Court challenge to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, said he had presented Mr. Steele with a petition bearing the signatures of RNC members from 16 states - the number needed under RNC rules to convene an extraordinary meeting of the full committee next month.
Mr. Steele has twice rejected requests by Mr. Bopp, who leads two conservative caucuses within the RNC, to call the special meeting.
The petition calls for open debate at the extraordinary meeting on three conservative resolutions that for the first time directly involve the RNC in policy and ideology.
"In just a few months, the goal of the Obama administration has become clear and obvious - to restructure American society along socialist ideals," Mr. Bopp said in summarizing the first resolution. The resolution's chief sponsor is Washington state RNC member Jeff Kent, and it calls on the Democrats to be "truthful and honest with the American people by renaming themselves the Democrat Socialist Party."
Mr. Obama has had to parry conservative charges that he is a closet socialist, most notably in a memorable confrontation with "Joe the Plumber" Samuel Wurzelbacher at an Ohio campaign event last year.
The conservative critique has intensified as Mr. Obama's ambitious spending, tax, budget and policy reform programs have been taken up by the Democrat-controlled Congress.
Conservatives on the RNC acknowledge that the Republicans lost credibility as the party of small government and fiscal discipline under the Bush administration, and fear that there is no credible counterforce to what they regard as the leftward tilt of the ruling Democrats.
"Just as President Reagan's identification of the Soviet Union as the 'evil empire' galvanized opposition to communism, we hope that the accurate depiction of the Democrats as a Socialist Party will galvanize opposition to their march to socialism," Mr. Bopp wrote in his e-mail.
Mr. Steele previously offered to issue a joint statement with signers of the resolution, but they turned down his offer and insisted on a debate and vote by the full RNC membership - a state party chairman and a national committeeman and national committeewoman from all 50 states and five territories.
Oregon RNC member Solomon Yue, a founder of a conservative caucus among RNC members, said, "We must refocus the public's attention to the Democrat Party's stampede to socialism and we must make our socialist president's every legislative victory so costly that he will lose the war in 2010 and 2012."
Publicly, Mr. Steele has shied away from using the socialist line.
"We don't see this president so much as a socialist as we see him as a collectivist," he told Fox News. "When you strip away this idea that the individual matters, for this concept of the collective - all of us pulling together and working towards some governmental goal - that's what I'm more concerned about."
But in an April 6 memo to RNC members, Mr. Steele said that "Democrats are indeed marching America toward European-style socialism, and I will continue to criticize their dangerous policies in that regard - but I believe these proposed resolutions will accomplish little than to give the media and our opponents the opportunities to mischaracterize Republicans."
The second resolution, whose chief sponsor is Illinois RNC member Demetra DeMonte, urges Republican lawmakers to reject spending earmarks, which "corrupt the legislative process, wastefully expand government and are designed to help congressmen get re-elected."
The third resolution, whose chief sponsor is Oklahoma RNC member Carolyn McLarty, commends congressional Republicans who have "opposed bailouts and reckless spending bills and celebrates the unanimous opposition of Republican members of Congress to [Mr. Obama's] 10-year budget plan and the 'cap-and-trade' energy tax bill."
Some say the internal battle taking place reflects a yearning among Republicans for a single, undisputed figure to counter the popular Mr. Obama and take on Democratic congressional majorities.
"You need a single voice," Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, told The Washington Times. "I think Steele - I don't know him that well - but he needs to be the one who does that job."
Mr. Bopp said that the times "demand bold and aggressive leadership by the RNC. ... And it is time to identify the Democrats for what they are."