- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2009

Amid prolonged cheering, clapping and foot-stamping by an unusually demonstrative and excited throng of Republican officials, former Maryland Gov. Michael S. Steele on Friday became the first black chairman of the party’s national governing body.

Mr. Steele, 50, immediately left no doubt where he stands on the political-philosophical spectrum.

“Conservative principles have made us the strong and proud party we are,” he said in a victory speech after the sixth ballot gave him a majority of the 168 members of the Republican National Committee.

Mr. Steele defeated such powerful rivals as incumbent national Chairman Mike Duncan, South Carolina party Chairman Katon Dawson and Michigan state Chairman Saul Anuzis.

Right up to the eve of his victorious race, Mr. Steele faced down vicious, often anonymous accusations that he lacks a philosophical or ideological core and is really a social liberal.

On Thursday night, RNC members found under the door of their hotel rooms a one-page flier with the picture of a toilet-paper roll unspooling at top of the page and the headline: “Soft is fine for toilet paper but not for a chairman of the Republican National Committee.”

The leaflet went on to list things Mr. Steele said in the past about being a conservative and a moderate and having helped found the centrist Republican Leadership Council with Christie Whitman, a socially liberal Republican who is anathema to many on the right.

In his first words upon being elected at the Republican National Committee’s annual winter meeting at the Capitol Hilton Hotel, Mr. Steele vowed to build a party that would be competitive in every region of the country.

“It’s time for something completely different and we’re going to bring it to them,” said Mr. Steele, who was greeted in restaurant and hotel lobbies as something of a rock star by manager, staff, waiters and ordinary passers by. “We’re going to bring this party to every corner, every boardroom, every neighborhood, every community.”

He beat two particularly strong rivals — Mr. Duncan, who had been Karl Rove’s personal choice for chairman two years ago, and Mr. Dawson, who ran a strong race and was actually ahead of Mr. Steele and the rest of the pack after the fourth ballot.

Republican elders — including some Southerners — had been signaling some discomfort with the possibility of picking a Southerner as party chairman after losing significant ground north of the Mason-Dixon line in 2006 and 2008 and was getting the reputation of having reduced itself to being a regional party.

“I did not sign up for a regional party,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned the RNC members at a luncheon Thursday. Earlier, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour had told The Washington Times that electing a Southerner as the next national party chairman would enhance the impression some people have that the GOP had become a regional party.