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Mr. Bopp and Mr. Priebus had a lengthy one-on-one talk Saturday, in which Mr. Bopp questioned the candidate about his tenure under Mr. Steele and whether he was a stalking horse for Gov. Barbour or another possible 2012 presidential hopeful.

Mr. Bopp said after the meeting that Mr. Priebus did assure him that RNC funds were not used for any of Mr. Steele’s book deals or speaking fees. But Mr. Bopp argued that Mr. Priebus‘ duty in the controversy was to the RNC and that he should have taken the matter to the RNC Executive Committee for resolution.

“This is a failure of judgment on his part, but not a disqualifier, in my mind,” said Mr. Bopp. “Steele is the man responsible for his chairmanship.”

Among the questions Mr. Steele has faced have been reports that he arranged paid speeches and promoted his book while working as party chairman and that there has been excessive spending and a lack of financial controls in the preparations for the party’s 2012 nominating convention in Tampa, Fla.

Mr. Steele, who surprised many in the party by announcing a re-election bid, has begun forcefully defending his tenure. For all the RNC’s internal woes, his supporters note, the party has been on a major winning streak, starting with gubernatorial wins in New Jersey and Virginia in 2009 and culminating in sweeping gains on Capitol Hill and in the nation’s statehouses Nov. 2.

“I don’t believe in quitting a fight,” Mr. Steele told Fox News talk-show host Sean Hannity last week.

But Mr. Steele’s critics in the party, including a number of prominent governors and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, have been brainstorming for months about how to unite behind a candidate to block a second term for Mr. Steele, whom they regard as an overall embarrassment and a detriment in cultivating major donors to the party for the 2012 presidential election.

The fear Haley Barbour and others have is that a large field of candidates in January will divide the vote and allow Mr. Steele to emerge as the winner, as he did on the sixth ballot in January 2009.

For all the outside criticism, the decision comes down to the 168 members of the RNC, the vast majority of whom have not publicly signaled a preference.

In backing Mr. Priebus, Mr. Norcross addressed the criticism that Mr. Priebus served so long at Mr. Steele’s side as the RNC’s reputation continued to slide.

“Yes, Priebus could have resigned,” Mr. Norcross said. “But that decision involves either staying and trying to do the best you can with a bad situation or letting the matter drop and no longer be an influence for doing the right thing.”

Mr. Priebus “did an admirable job under very trying circumstances,” he added.