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Mr. Steele has more support from centrist Republicans on the RNC, including some who are pro-choice and who favor gay rights. Mr. Steele has a strong conservative record on social issues, and it’s not clear whether support from liberals is enough to sink his candidacy.

Mr. Duncan and Mr. Steele stand to benefit from a full committee meeting, which would likely have more centrist and moderate members present. But they could take some heat for having members from all over the country to stay in Washington for a third day to little purpose if there is not a quorum to do business.

The final showdown is the election of the next national chairman at what promises to be a raucous annual winter meeting of the RNC in Washington from Jan. 28 to 31.

Although Mr. Blackwell has the edge in high-profile endorsements, several party insiders have told The Times that the front-runner appears to be Mr. Duncan, perhaps the unlikeliest choice for a party seeking to start afresh after consecutive disastrous elections and a badly tarnished brand name.

Mr. Duncan was the Bush White House’s choice for chairman two years ago and presided over the loss of the Oval Office and two straight cycles of Republican losses in the Senate and House. But he also raised record sums of money for candidates and get-out-the-vote efforts.

“Mike Duncan is absolutely the front-runner at this time, without question,” Mr. Emineth said.

After the presidential elections, Mr. Duncan pumped up conservatives by initiating lawsuits against what critics call the free-speech infringing aspects of the campaign finance law supported by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican Party’s unsuccessful presidential nominee.

Mr. Anuzis is considered one of the most Facebook-Twitter-YouTube-savvy state Republican leaders and impressed members of his party, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, with his intelligence and energy.

But some fellow RNC members point to Republicans’ poor showing in Michigan in November under his leadership.

Mr. Dawson is widely admired among social conservatives and has a reputation as media- and tech-savvy - an important point given poor Republican showings with younger voters. But he has been criticized by Mr. Steele and others for only recently quitting a country club whose covenant excluded black membership - though blacks did play at the club as guests.

Some RNC members also said the party needs to win back states outside the South and that Mr. Dawson’s drawl may not make him the idea spokesman.

Mr. Saltsman also has had race-based troubles, getting slammed by other Republicans - but defended by Mr. Blackwell - for sending to RNC members a CD that had a parody song titled “Barack the Magic Negro.” Mr. Blackwell said his fellow Republicans should lighten up and not be so quick to “throw another Republican under the bus” for use of a term.