- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Republican National Committee this week said it never offered Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele “a specific role” at the committee after his unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Many conservatives were surprised this week when, after reports that some leading Republicans favored Mr. Steele to succeed Ken Mehlman as chairman of the RNC, the White House leaked word to news agencies that President Bush would back Florida Sen. Mel Martinez for the top post at the committee.

The Washington Times reported Nov. 10 that Mr. Mehlman would not seek a second two-year term as RNC chairman in January and that Mr. Steele had been offered a Cabinet or top RNC post in recognition of his hard-fought Senate campaign that ended in defeat on Nov. 7.

The Times on Wednesday asked the White House, the RNC and Mr. Steele whether, as the paper also had reported, anyone from the administration or RNC had told Mr. Steele or any of his aides that he was not a “team player” because he had talked to The Times about the jobs in question and that those jobs could be withheld in retaliation.

RNC spokeswoman Tracy Schmidt on Wednesday declined to respond to the questions.

But an RNC official who insisted on anonymity said, “Ken Mehlman is a big fan and believer in Michael Steele, but at no point did he approach him about the specific role of RNC chairman.”

Mr. Steele told The Times on Wednesday that neither White House adviser Karl Rove nor Mr. Mehlman “offered me formally” any job.

“I got calls from various state party chairmen and national committee members to take the chairman’s post on Thursday and Friday of last week,” Mr. Steele said. “I told them, ‘This is clearly a White House decision. We’ll just have to wait to see what the White House decides.’ This isn’t something I actively pursued. It grew up out of the grass roots.”

Mr. Steele said he was “surprised after the election when I … saw this blog about me succeeding Ken Mehlman, that I was being considered for the job.”

“I said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that,’ ” Mr. Steele said.

In any case, he said, “all this is moot now. The president has made his decision, and I am a team player.”

The Times reported Tuesday that four potential 2008 Republican presidential contenders — including Arizona Sen. John McCain and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — had called Mr. Steele to urge him to take the RNC post, but only if he won an ironclad agreement to be free to run the RNC so as to further the party’s interests rather than take orders from Mr. Rove.

Former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III thought he had such an agreement with the White House but was ousted as Republican national chairman after a short time in office during Mr. Bush’s first term because Mr. Gilmore had failed to staff the RNC with operatives from the Bush-Cheney 2000 presidential campaign.

The RNC, which meets in January, is expected to rubber-stamp the White House’s choice of Mr. Martinez to become general chairman of the RNC while retaining his Senate seat. The RNC’s general counsel, Mike Duncan, would handle day-to-day operations.

“I support the president’s decision, and in January the party will vote on it,” Mr. Steele told The Times on Wednesday. “I’m fine with Mel Martinez. I called him … and congratulated him and offered to help in any way I can.”

The choice of Mr. Martinez was widely interpreted as a signal of a renewed White House push to promote passage of its plan to offer amnesty to illegal aliens, which Mr. Martinez sponsored in the Senate, but which was blocked by conservative Republicans in the House. During his Senate race, Mr. Steele had campaigned against such an amnesty.

Mr. Steele, who would have become the first black RNC chairman, denied that he or anyone on his campaign or lieutenant governor’s staff had been scolded by anyone from the White House or the committee as “not being a team player” because he had allowed himself to be interviewed by The Times. However, a senior Steele aide had confided the contrary to The Times.

Mr. Rove did not respond on the record to questions from The Times about Mr. Steele or about any discussions with him about posts at the RNC or in the Cabinet or whether he thought Mr. Steele was competent to run an agency or department in the federal government.

“We never speculate about personnel matters,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told The Times.

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