NEW ORLEANS | Texas Gov. Rick Perry brought them to their feet, stamping and hollering their affection with at least the same level of enthusiasm as — some said more than — they did former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
The two potential 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls were part of a galaxy of Republican stars who addressed a record audience of 3,500 activists attending the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, a private non-party event hosted by Louisiana GOP Chairman Roger Villere — considered a shoo-in for his state’s lieutenant governor post in November.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele tried to couple his major-donors event with the SRLC meeting, but ran into problems relating to the turmoil over a topless-club visit and other charges of financial sloppiness at the RNC.
Few wealthy potential contributors to the RNC major-donors event showed up. Worse, some of his party’s best-known headliners declined his invitation to address his RNC fundraising events on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Windsor Court Hotel, within easy walking distance of the Hilton Riverside Hotel, where the SRLC was holding its events.
Hardly any high-profile Republicans at the SRLC, including Mr. Villere, were seen anywhere near Mr. Steele whenever photographers were in the vicinity. One senior GOP official was heard to comment to another, “You never know when a picture with Steele will come back to haunt you.”
Those who turned down Mr. Steele’s invitations included Mr. Perry, Mrs. Palin, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana and Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana.
Of the two other SRLC invitees, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty sent a video greeting instead, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had earlier declined because of what he said was a scheduling conflict.
Major donors’ contributions are crucial because the RNC has to spend anywhere from effectively zero (a telephone call) to 30 cents (a donors’ event) to raise each dollar from them, while each small-dollar contributions from direct-mail solicitation, phone banks and other means cost from 50 to 70 cents to raise.
At least one high-dollar event Mr. Steele had scheduled for New Orleans had to be canceled for lack of interest, Republican officials said. By the time Mr. Steele took the podium as the SRLC’s windup speaker Saturday, the Hilton ballroom audience had thinned out considerably.
“I’m the first here to admit that I’ve made mistakes, and it’s been incumbent on me to take responsibility to shoulder that burden, make the necessary changes and move on,” Mr. Steele said, drawing a standing ovation from the half-full room.
In his first public speech since the story of the RNC check to reimburse a bondage-club visit surfaced, Mr. Steele, who was not at the event, did not address the specifics, but said that poor Democratic polling suggesting a Republican victory in November means “the liberal media are looking for any possible alternative narrative… . They are looking for those distractions, and Lord knows I’ve provided a few.”
Mr. Steele has been under pressure for some time to fire his embattled finance director, Rob Bickhart, who has been accused by several Republican officials of sloppy bookkeeping and fiduciary negligence.
RNC Treasurer Randy Pullen told The Washington Times that he had for some time been personally urging Mr. Steele to fire Mr. Bickhart.
Mr. Pullen said he had a good meeting with Mr. Steele on Thursday evening with the chairman saying he will institute more-stringent financial procedures. But Mr. Pullen did not ask Mr. Steele to fire Mr. Bickhart because, he told The Times, he had heard that Mr. Steele would eventually strip Mr. Bickhart of his “full-time” finance director’s post and rehire him as a consultant.