From anonymous charges of racism, old-fashioned graft and outright incompetence, the six-man race for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee has devolved into the dirtiest - and most closely watched - in recent history.
The 168 members who Friday will elect the next chairman have been inundated with anonymous e-mails attacking the characters and capabilities of the various candidates and, in at least one case, accusing a candidate of conspiring with political consultants to cash in on the millions of dollars in future advertising by the party.
“This is dirtiest ever - and remember, I was the longest-serving state party chairman in the history of this committee,” said RNC member and former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett, a supporter of Mike Duncan, the incumbent national chairman who is seeking a second two-year term.
One candidate, South Carolina Republican Chairman Katon Dawson, is the subject this week of an unsigned e-mail to RNC members that bore a hypothetical USA Today front page with the banner headline, “RNC members choose ‘whites only’ chairman,” as a warning of how a Dawson win would be spun.
A month before declaring for the chairmanship, Mr. Dawson quit a country club that had barred blacks. Rivals don’t call him racist but said they worry that the media and Democrats will exploit the “whites only” issue - even though black Republicans in his state have publicly supported Mr. Dawson for national chairman.
Shawn Steel, former California party chairman, blames Mr. Duncan for the vitriol, and said the incumbent and his “entourage of consultants and vendors have been feeding off the RNC for years.”
“It’s the bloodiest, most vicious race I’ve seen, with the establishment pulling out all stops to protect their privileges,” said Mr. Steel, who supports former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele. Reminded that another longtime Republican insider, Blaise Hazelwood, is managing Mr. Steele’s campaign for chairman, Mr. Steel said, “Listen, nothing’s perfect in politics.”
Mr. Duncan said he was not involved in any personal attacks and that he has sent a letter to members discouraging dirty politics.
“I have not, nor to my knowledge has anyone on my team had anything to do with the malicious and anonymous e-mails and accusations that have been distributed,” Mr. Duncan said in a separate e-mail to The Washington Times. “I sent a personal message sharing this sentiment to all RNC members within the last week.”
Mr. Duncan added that his plan for change “returns the RNC to a committee that is driven by members, not consultants and vendors.”
After back-to-back losses that cost the party control of Congress and the White House, Republicans, especially state party leaders, see Friday’s election as a turning point.
However, when The Times submitted three questions on the biggest hot-button issues - gay marriage, immigration and federal bailouts - little substantive difference emerged among the six men.
Mr. Duncan was the lone candidate who did not respond initially to the questions, instead sending a single response attacking President Obama and not even doing so on the issues in question. All six men support a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants and doubt the government’s competence to bail out industries failing in the marketplace.
Each man has spent at least a six-figure sum on the campaign, in pursuit of a job that pays only $223,500 a year plus expenses, the same amount as the speaker of the U.S. House.
Envious of the organization and fundraising that Howard Dean delivered for his party as Democratic National Committee chairman, Republicans are fighting to elect someone who can become the face of the party and expand its ranks versus an organizer who can unite the party’s disparate factions and raise funds.
Mr. Dean is widely credited with developing the “50-state strategy” that helped elect Mr. Obama compete and win in historically conservative states such as Virginia and North Carolina.
Mr. Duncan, who was handpicked by President George W. Bush, has been praised for his fundraising prowess but is not well known outside the party establishment. Mr. Steele, who is black and adroit at handling television interviews, is considered a contender capable of reaching out to minorities. His celebrity status has attracted attacks.
E-mails to members have pointed out that Mr. Steele, a former Maryland party chairman, has done his own dodging, for example on the question of why he co-founded the Republican Leadership Council (RLC) with social liberals Christie Whitman, an Environmental Protection Agency chief under Mr. Bush, and former Sen. John Danforth of Missouri.
Around the time that Mr. Steele entered the chairman race, his picture and any mention of him as a founder disappeared from the RLC Web site. Mr. Steele said he had “joined” the RLC, which supports abortion and gay rights, only to reach out to liberals as a conservative and help unite the party.
Not all the attacks on the candidates have been anonymous.
On Monday, Indiana RNC member James Bopp Jr., who formed a self-described conservative rump group of RNC members to fight the Steele candidacy, sent members a signed e-mail basically accusing Mr. Steele of lying about his casual relationship with the RLC.
It quoted Mrs. Whitman as saying that she was proud to join with “Michael Steele in creating a powerful and influential group that can bring our party back to its roots while promoting the common-sense centrist values we all hold so dear.” The word “centrist” among members of the dominant strain of the Republican Party is an epithet.
Mr. Steele said he has ignored the “silliness.”
“I have said from the beginning that this race is not about an individual candidate; it is about setting a new tone and direction for a party that has become consumed by the ways of Washington,” Mr. Steele said.
“To the extent anyone has engaged in behavior unbecoming a Republican, that has been both unfortunate and a distraction.”
Another anonymous e-mail to members noted that Saul Anuzis does not have a formal education beyond high school - he attended college for four years but did not finish his degree - and called the salaried Michigan Republican chairman “a paid political hack whose greed and misconduct lost him his job in government. After fifteen years of trying to make it in business, he came back to what he knew best: politics for pay.”
A particularly vicious whack at Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state and the other black man chasing the chairman’s post, appeared in a Jan. 6 anonymous e-mail claiming he was “dangerously incompetent” as secretary of state and accusing him of using taxpayer money to finance TV ads to “boost his own name recognition” in preparation for his failed run for governor.