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“Sadly, if left on its current path, the RNC will not be a productive force in the 2012 campaign to deny President Obama a second term, retain our House majority and elect a Senate majority,” he wrote to the party’s leadership.

The letter was a playbook for any of Mr. Steele’s potential rivals, noting that the chairman had maxed out a $15 million credit line that the committee had approved.

“I think the Gentry Collins letter made it impossible for Mike Steele to be re-elected,” said Virginia committee member Morton Blackwell, who is backing Mr. Anuzis.

Mr. Steele started the job with a $23 million surplus; the RNC raised more than $79 million this year and has spent all of it. Some went to places that previously had little RNC cash or interest, including five U.S. territories that each has three votes on the central committee.

“There are two things that a chairman needs to understand. They’re going to start with a deficit. That’s fact. They also will need to figure out how to get the major donors back on board because they weren’t on board last time,” said Linda Herren, a committee member from Georgia. “They still helped elect Republicans. But it was not through the RNC.”

Third-party groups, led by veteran GOP operatives Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, raised in a few months almost as much as the RNC has since January 2009. Those dollars fueled blistering television ads that helped Republicans to victory but were an embarrassment to the RNC.

During Republican governors’ private meetings last week in California, a consensus emerged that Mr. Steele must leave his post when his term expires. Governors returned to their states and this week shared that message with their committee members, telling them that retaking the White House requires someone else.

Others say they still like the chairman - and his doting attention, his speedy replies - but believe it’s time for him to go.

“He’s a wonderful man. He’s done a good job,” said Cindy Costa, a committee member from South Carolina. “But it would be better for him - and I want the best for him - to step down knowing he gave an honest shot and did a good job this election cycle.”