Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell has won the backing of some of America’s best-known conservatives in his bid to become Republican National Committee chairman, just days before he and the other hopefuls are scheduled to begin a week of joint appearances to Republican Party audiences.
The soft-spoken politician has received public endorsements from across the spectrum of conservatives - social, movement and economic, but some in the party, people who back him and people who don’t, fear he may lack the charisma needed to represent the party on television.
Blackwell supporters include limited-government champions such as American Conservative Union Chairman David A. Keene, Club for Growth President Pat Toomey, magazine publisher Steve Forbes, former Attorney General Edwin Meese, Media Research Center President L. Brent Bozell and publisher Alfred S. Regnery.
“I see Ken as a principled conservative who is a boat rocker, and that is what the Republicans need more than anything else,” said Richard Viguerie, one of the founders of the modern conservative movement. “When we are overwhelmed as we are, having someone who goes along to get along won’t help us become a majority party.”
He also has won endorsements from such religious conservatives such as Phylis Schlafly, Tim LaHaye, James Dobson and Tony Perkins.
Mr. Blackwell’s “extensive campaign experience and commitment to conservative principles will serve the RNC well. Ken is the clear choice in this race and why I am proud to support him for RNC chairman,” Mr. Perkins, president of Family Research Council Action (FRC), said in a statement released Saturday.
Mr. Blackwell has worked with the FRC as senior fellow for family empowerment.
In an unprecedented frenzy of activity surrounding a national party chairman contest, the six RNC chairman candidates will face off in public or private sessions for three days in a row this week.
Besides Mr. Blackwell, the candidates are former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, current RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, Michigan party Chairman Saul Anuzis, South Carolina party Chairman Katon Dawson and Chip Saltsman, the presidential campaign manager of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Mr. Blackwell and Mr. Steele are black; the other four are white.
First up is a debate at the National Press Club at 1 p.m. Monday, open to the public and the press and sponsored by Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform.
Then comes a Tuesday morning session by the 90-member Conservative Steering Committee - an event closed to the press, public and RNC members not specifically invited. But the group represents more than half the 168-member RNC and was formed to head off victories by Mr. Steele or Mr. Duncan at the national chairman’s election at the end of January.
Finally, at a hastily called meeting of the whole RNC on Wednesday, the chairman hopefuls will assemble to take questions from committee members without the public or the press present, though it is not clear whether even a quorum of members will show up for that meeting.
Several Republican officials acknowledge that Mr. Blackwell is not nearly as strong in media appearances as other hopefuls, particularly Mr. Steele, and that this might be a fatal flaw in playing the role of national spokesman in chief in the age of Barack Obama.
“The challenge that Ken Blackwell has to face is charisma. Michael and Ken are two different people, and we have to decide whether we want someone who is a good spokesman or a solid grass-roots organizer or something in between,” North Dakota Republican Party Chairman Gary Emineth told The Washington Times.
Mr. Steele has more support from centrist Republicans on the RNC, including some who are pro-choice and who favor gay rights. Mr. Steele has a strong conservative record on social issues, and it’s not clear whether support from liberals is enough to sink his candidacy.
Mr. Duncan and Mr. Steele stand to benefit from a full committee meeting, which would likely have more centrist and moderate members present. But they could take some heat for having members from all over the country to stay in Washington for a third day to little purpose if there is not a quorum to do business.
The final showdown is the election of the next national chairman at what promises to be a raucous annual winter meeting of the RNC in Washington from Jan. 28 to 31.
Although Mr. Blackwell has the edge in high-profile endorsements, several party insiders have told The Times that the front-runner appears to be Mr. Duncan, perhaps the unlikeliest choice for a party seeking to start afresh after consecutive disastrous elections and a badly tarnished brand name.
Mr. Duncan was the Bush White House’s choice for chairman two years ago and presided over the loss of the Oval Office and two straight cycles of Republican losses in the Senate and House. But he also raised record sums of money for candidates and get-out-the-vote efforts.
“Mike Duncan is absolutely the front-runner at this time, without question,” Mr. Emineth said.
After the presidential elections, Mr. Duncan pumped up conservatives by initiating lawsuits against what critics call the free-speech infringing aspects of the campaign finance law supported by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican Party’s unsuccessful presidential nominee.
Mr. Anuzis is considered one of the most Facebook-Twitter-YouTube-savvy state Republican leaders and impressed members of his party, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, with his intelligence and energy.
But some fellow RNC members point to Republicans’ poor showing in Michigan in November under his leadership.
Mr. Dawson is widely admired among social conservatives and has a reputation as media- and tech-savvy - an important point given poor Republican showings with younger voters. But he has been criticized by Mr. Steele and others for only recently quitting a country club whose covenant excluded black membership - though blacks did play at the club as guests.
Some RNC members also said the party needs to win back states outside the South and that Mr. Dawson’s drawl may not make him the idea spokesman.
Mr. Saltsman also has had race-based troubles, getting slammed by other Republicans - but defended by Mr. Blackwell - for sending to RNC members a CD that had a parody song titled “Barack the Magic Negro.” Mr. Blackwell said his fellow Republicans should lighten up and not be so quick to “throw another Republican under the bus” for use of a term.