Embattled Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele and the four candidates vying for his job engaged in an occasionally heated debate Monday in which the challengers took aim at the RNC's unprecedented red ink and lackluster fundraising.
The challengers, all eager to lead the party into the 2012 electoral cycle, knocked the performance of Mr. Steele, whom GOP governors, congressional leaders and fellow RNC members have accused of financial ineptitude and mismanagement in presiding over the committee since his election in January 2009.
"How can an organization that has lost its credibility, is $20 million in debt, is steeped in mismanagement, distractions and drama actually lead us into the next election cycle of 2012 and offer change?" said Ann Wagner, a former Missouri Republican chairman and U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg.
"I think it's time for real change, and a change of course at the Republican National Committee. The RNC has been the most important and relevant and impactful political organization in over — well over a generation in America and, dare I say, the world. And it is broken, and it needs to be fixed," she said.
Generating occasional bursts of applause from the National Press Club audience, Mr. Steele stoutly defended his tenure and pointed repeatedly to Republican gains at the polls since he took office in January 2009.
"We won in all 50 states, and that's the goal — winning," said Mr. Steele, countering charges the RNC's get-out-the-vote efforts were anemic.
Mr. Steele, dressed in a dark suit and conservative tie and looking every bit a national party leader, impressed even some of his critics as the RNC's 168-member panel prepares to vote on its leader next week.
"I expected him to come off as defensive but he came on strong and sounded confident," said Jim Martin, chairman of the 60+ lobbying group. "I think he actually did the best of the five."
But former RNC General Counsel and chief Steele adviser Reince Priebus — who has more publicly committed votes than any other candidate — took a hearty swipe at Mr. Steele's work habits.
He said retiring the debt and raising another $400 million will require the next chairman "to be sitting in that office for five or six hours a day, running through major donor lists, setting up meetings, setting up a national finance network, a national finance team in order to fully fund all of these programs."
Steele critics have faulted the chairman for failing to properly court major donors, who turned to other organizations in the past election cycle.
Michigan RNC member Saul Anuzis, who helped Mr. Steele reach out to young voters through Twitter, fired some shots of his own at Mr. Steele.
Before deciding to run for chairman, Mr. Anuzis said he called major donors who had left the party during the past two years and was surprised to hear them say they were willing to come back and that "often they weren't even asked for a contribution" during the Steele regime.
Mr. Anuzis said as chairman he would spend the overwhelming part of his time fundraising so that the state Republican parties can do what's necessary to get out the vote in 2012.
Ms. Wagner argued that the party had to rebuild its outreach to the party's major donors, saying she would draw on the expertise of past RNC financial chairmen to raise funds for 2012.
Mr. Steele, who described himself at one point as a "half-glass-full kind of guy" countered that the RNC under his leadership did not have "72-hour get-out-the-vote program, we had a 12-month get-out-the-vote program."
"The idea that we didn't fully fund [get-out-the-vote programs] is a misnomer because this year we had to play in all 50 states," he said.
He said the RNC provided local GOP officials with technology and other aid, citing the GOP takeover of the House and more than 20 statehouses in November as proof of the effectiveness of his approach.
Asked by debate co-moderator Tucker Carlson of the DailyCaller website what would disqualify a Republican candidate from receiving RNC help, the candidates agreed that it would be failure to back 80 percent of the GOP platform.
But Mr. Steele cautioned against using "litmus tests" to judge fellow Republicans — the same objection he raised in initially opposing a resolution by conservatives on the committee earlier in his term that applied the so-called "Reagan 80 percent test" of loyalty to party candidates.
The rivals for chairman have been crisscrossing the country — at their own expense or with help from backers — seeking support from the 56 party chairmen and the two other national committee members in each of the 50 states and five territories.
Former Deputy Transportation Secretary Maria Cino drew applause when she answered co-moderator Grover Norquist's question to name the biggest mistake Republicans made in the past 10 years.
Her response was "McCain-Feingold," referring to the campaign-finance regulation law enacted by a Republican-led Congress and signed by President George W. Bush. Mr. Priebus, who raised record donations as Wisconsin party chairman in the 2010 elections in which Republicans candidates swept the board in his state, also warmed conservative hearts when he said the next RNC leader will have to "play well in the sandbox with the tea party movement. … We're not in competition with the conservative movement. We're part of it."
Americans for Tax Reform, the DailyCaller and the Susan B. Anthony List hosted the debate at the National Press Club.
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