Incumbent Mike Duncan probably will get the most first-ballot votes for election as Republican National Committee chairman, but eventual victory likely will go to one of the other two RNC members running for the post in the election scheduled for Jan. 30.
Several members attending a first-ever special meeting of the national committee on Wednesday told The Washington Times that they expect either Michigan party Chairman Saul Anuzis or South Carolina party Chairman Katon Dawson to emerge as the party's top national official.
"I think Duncan wins the first-ballot plurality, but not the next ballots," said Maryland RNC member Joyce Lyons Tehres, who supports former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, an accomplished public speaker, for national party chairman. She said she thought Mr. Steele continued to lead the field after the Wednesday meeting, but others saw a trend.
"I sensed it was catching on, the idea that the next chairman should be a member of the committee, not a former member," said Curly Haugland, a North Dakota rancher and committee member.
He was one of the 50 members of the 168-member Republican National Committee spending a cold, dreary day in Washington grilling their national chairman candidates on how to make the old party grand once again.
Those 168 people will vote for one of the six candidates Jan. 30, but in the likely event that nobody wins a majority on the first ballot, the committee members will keep voting until one hopeful does command a majority. The usual course of events is that candidates with no apparent chance at winning then throw their support to others and thus a majority coalition develops.
Several members who initially tagged Mr. Duncan or Mr. Steele as the front-runner changed their minds after all six candidates presented their respective cases and fielded questions on Wednesday, the end of an unprecedented three days of candidate self-advertisement.
The new view of these members is that the contest probably will go to either Mr. Anuzis, a technology-hip, motorcycle-riding son of Lithuanian immigrants, or Mr. Dawson, who has amassed a winning record for Republican candidates in his state.
"Saul showed his saviness and had the best grasp of the latest in communications tools," North Dakota Chairman Gary Eminent told The Washington Times after the RNC member-only meeting at the Capitol Hill Club. "But on his winning record in South Carolina and articulating the national party's message, Katon looked pretty strong."
"Dawson was very folksy, very passionate -- made the case that he knows how to build a winning party," former RNC General Counsel David Norcross said. "Saul talked about relying heavily on Republican governors."
"Duncan, Steele and [former Ohio Secretary of State Ken] Blackwell led before this [week] got started -- they had more organized commitments. But I saw lot of momentum from Dawson," Mr. Eminent said. "Whether people had been released from their past commitment in order to support him, I don't know."
Mr. Duncan, a Kentucky banker who raised record sums of money for the Republican Party in 2008, argued during the closed meeting that he has run the national committee for two years and knows best how to bring change and set the party apparatus up to win upcoming gubernatorial and congressional elections.
"Duncan argued, 'I am ready from Day One' and gave the best performance I ever heard him give," Mr. Norcross said.
Members who remained in their respective home states as well as those who journeyed to Washington said they detected sentiment building to elect one of the three fellow RNC members as the next national party chairman, rather than one of the three nonmembers also vying for the post.
While it is widely agreed that Mr. Steele would make the most telegenic party spokesman for a time that the party will not have the bully pulpit of the White House, some members said they were looking for someone with skills that go well beyond the ability to come across well on television.
"I think we need something more than a national spokesperson -- who can actually run the national party and take it technologically and organizationally to where we need to be to win elections," said Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams, who has been following the three days of RNC Washington meetings from his home in Denver.
None of the members interviewed were ready to bet money on the outcome - some recent RNC contests have run five or more ballots, but a general impression was emerging.
"If I had to guess, I'd say the next chairman will be new face, a member -- Katon or Saul," said Mr. Haugland.