For most of the nation's press, it's no secret whom influential Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is backing in the race for the next GOP chairman, but the one-time party chairman — and possible 2012 presidential hopeful — denies he's orchestrating the campaign that has given Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus strong momentum in the race.
With the election a month away, on Jan. 14, the backroom dealing has been heating up, even as embattled incumbent Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele revealed last week that he will run for a second two-year term.
Mr. Priebus, a one-time Steele backer who served under him as the RNC general counsel, is one of a pack of candidates seeking to replace Mr. Steele, who has faced heavy criticism of his handling of party finances, frequent media gaffes and accusations of self-dealing since winning election in January 2009.
Other declared contenders include Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party; Ann Wagner, head of the Michigan GOP; Gentry Collins, who resigned last month as the RNC's general counsel; and former George W. Bush administration official Maria Cino, who has picked up endorsements from party heavy-hitters such as former Vice President Dick Cheney.
In such a crowded field, an endorsement from Mr. Barbour, credited by many in the party and the press with engineering the Republican congressional takeover in 1994 when he ran the RNC, could be a valuable asset.
Mr. Barbour told The Washington Times that he supported a change at the top at the RNC, but was not about to endorse one of Mr. Steele's rivals.
"I am not for anybody for chairman, and I do not expect to support anybody for chairman, but we do need to have a change," Mr. Barbour said. "Several people running look like they are qualified."
Even as Mr. Barbour is keeping quiet, two of the governor's closest allies — nephew Henry Barbour, a Mississippi RNC member, and David Norcross, a former RNC general counsel under Mr. Barbour — signed a letter to the 168 members of the RNC endorsing Mr. Priebus. Both say they acted on their own and merely informed Gov. Barbour of their intention to back Mr. Priebus.
As state party chairman, Mr. Priebus is credited with raising a record $14 million in Wisconsin over three years, despite having to deal with what Henry Barbour calls "the strictest campaign-finance laws in the country."
"He also helped organize the best [organizational] ground game in the country, stayed on message, managed the 'tea party' [activists] and other parts of our coalition, helped recruit strong candidates and delivered the most impressive victories in the country," the younger Mr. Barbour said.
Wisconsin Republicans in November wrested the governorship and a Senate seat from Democrats, picked up two House seats formerly held by Democrats and boosted their numbers significantly in the state Legislature.
But Mr. Priebus also faces questions, especially given his long and close ties to Mr. Steele before breaking ranks.
Indiana RNC member Jim Bopp, a leading voice for conservatives on the RNC, said he still had strong reservations about Mr. Priebus' candidacy.
"The biggest question Reince has to answer is why didn't he stand up to Steele when Steele violated RNC rules through making paid speeches and reaping profits from a book deal," Mr. Bopp told The Times.
"This set the tone for Steele's administration — that it was all about how Steele could benefit himself as RNC chairman."
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.
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