Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, an accomplished speaker, and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, not well known for dazzling performances, each repeatedly drew sustained applause and appreciative laughter during Monday´s debate among the six candidates for the Republican National Committee chairman post.
"Ken Blackwell talked about a revolution today, and we're going to see some of that happening because we've lost our way as a party," said North Dakota GOP Chairman Gary Emineth.
Carolyn Meadows, a former RNC member from Georgia, said: "I thought Steele and Blackwell both hit it out of the park."
She also expressed a view shared by others at the National Press Club: Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson and former Tennessee GOP Chairman Chip Saltsman were off their stride in the debate, showing they knew how to make the national party apparatus hum but not displaying the flair needed for public outreach.
Only about 25 members of the 168 voting members of the RNC were in attendance, along with a few dozen reporters, political activists, campaign consultants and C-SPAN's cameras. The debate began with a carnival-like atmosphere as people mingled on the ground floor and balcony of the Press Club Ballroom, which was decorated with white-lettered blue signs for "Steele" - indicating a strong show of support among his peers.
The aim of the candidates was to use television and RNC members to influence the rest of the committee when it assembles to vote on a new national chairman at the end of this month.
The debate produced more entertainment value than any national party chairman contest in recent memory.
Candidate Robert M. "Mike" Duncan, the incumbent national chairman, shocked the audience when he said "the Iraq war and its prosecution" was the worst mistake of the Bush administration in an answer to moderator Grover Norquist's inquiry.
Republicans have been generally loath to criticize the expansionist, military interventionist foreign policy of the Bush administration for fear, some acknowledge privately, of appearing soft on the war against terrorism.
In response to Mr. Norquist's question, Mr. Anuzis said, "spending and deficits," while Mr. Saltsman agreed but added "communications." Mr. Steele started on a litany of mistakes - "the war, Katrina, the bailouts" - then stopped himself, which drew laughter.
Mr. Dawson was emphatic in saying the Bush administration's biggest failures were to deliver on the promise of Social Security reform and immigration.
Many RNC members were mum on who they thought won the debate. "I think it weeded it out some," said Joyce Lyons Terhes, national committee woman from Maryland and a Steele supporter. "It definitely narrowed the field."
Mrs. Terhes would not say who she thought underperformed during the debate.
Mr. Duncan shot down allegations by some members that he could not be an agent of change after leading the party through major losses in the past elections. "It's not incongruous for me to be an agent of change," Mr. Duncan told The Washington Times after the debate. "I'm a loyal soldier," he added, explaining his work carrying water for the Bush White House during the past two years.
After Mr. Dawson finished touting his electoral success in his opening statement, Mr. Blackwell, dripping irony, said with a smile: "We all know how difficult it is to win elections in that swing state of South Carolina." The audience along with the other candidates, including Mr. Dawson, laughed.
A handful of questions focused on the party's attempts to reach out to key voting blocs that voted for Democrats in the last election: young voters and minorities. Every candidate agreed that outreach to those groups was essential, but Mr. Steele knocked his colleagues for not taking action in the past.
"The bottom line is 'yakkety-yak' then nothing," said Mr. Steele, one of two black candidates for the job, to applause from the crowd.
Candidates tore through a series of lightning rounds, most with answers they could all agree on, including who their favorite Republican president was: Ronald Reagan.
"OK, everyone got that one right," Mr. Norquist said.
When Mr. Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, asked whether each candidate owned a gun and if so, how many, only Mr. Steele said none. The others named their firearms, the number, the caliber and where they stored them.
Despite repeated criticism from their own ranks about constantly looking backward with unrelenting references to Mr. Reagan and the heyday of his presidency, the chairman hopefuls found it difficult to finish a sentence or answer a question without reference to Mr. Reagan.