- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 14, 2010

In a historic first, Republican National Committee conservatives are using a set of written criteria to evaluate potential replacements for Chairman Michael S. Steele, The Washington Times has learned.

To the surprise of RNC members seeking to back a candidate other than Mr. Steele, the wannabes and maybes include former RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, who was the choice for chairman in 2007 of Bush White House adviser Karl Rove. In a bitter six-way contest that went to six ballots, Mr. Duncan lost his January 2009 re-election bid, finding himself and a host of other candidates outsmarted by Mr. Steele.

“Duncan was a closet conservative when Rove ran the RNC from the White House during Bush’s eight years,” said Solomon Yue, an Oregon RNC member who served on Mr. Duncan’s transition team. With Indiana RNC member Jim Bopp, Mr. Yue founded two insurgency groups within the RNC - the 96-member Conservative Steering Committee and the 26-member Conservative Caucus.

Mr. Steele is weighing a run for a second two-year term, though some of his closest allies have let it be known they will run for his job at the Jan. 12-15 RNC annual winter meeting in Washington.

“Michael Steele will get re-elected because he’s got a solid core group, and all he needs is about 20 more votes,” said RNC member and former California GOP Chairman Shawn Steel. “He is the most successful RNC chairman since the last great ‘wave’ gave Republicans majorities in the U.S. House, state legislatures and governorships 16 years ago.”

He called Mr. Steele the “last honest broker to keep the Republican establishment true, and the only one who stood up for Sarah Palin and the ‘tea party. “

RNC member and former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, another in the 2009 candidate field who lost to Mr. Steele, is popular with many conservatives around the country, and is the only declared chairman candidate.

Even Mr. Steel has praise for him. “I like Saul’s approach - he’s running as different from Steele, but not anti-Steele,” Mr. Steel said.

The proposed candidate-evaluation criteria, now numbering more than a dozen specific items, are in the hands of Conservative Caucus members who plan to discuss and amend them during a conference call led by Mr. Bopp on Monday.

A similar conference call is scheduled for the larger Conservative Steering Committee a week later, followed by Conservative Caucus interviews of declared candidates conducted by FreedomWorks on Dec. 1 and by the Conservative Steering Committee on Dec. 2. Anyone may watch the interviews on the Internet as they happen.

The process is scheduled to wind up with the full membership using the evaluation form - a first in RNC history - to grade each candidate’s ability to provide convincing evidence that he or she can promote unity among tea party, economic, social and defense conservatives, support the party’s conservative platform, raise large sums of money and manage effectively and promote the party, its candidates and philosophy.

Mr. Steele has drawn unprecedented public scoldings from three of his predecessors and two of the most successful former RNC finance chairmen for declining success in raising money for the RNC from major donors and over charges of using the job to make money.

Mr. Bopp said these charges make Mr. Steele the wrong candidate for a post-2010 RNC chairman.

“We owed our Nov. 2 victory to the tea party’s message of restoring accountability in Washington,” Mr. Bopp said. “Restoring trust, integrity and accountability begins with how the RNC conducts its affairs - deficit spending, self-dealing, and ethical breaches are just not acceptable to the tea party movement and should not be acceptable to us.”

The growing field of Republicans who have been calling around to measure their potential support includes three seasoned “make no waves” Republicans, each backed by different and powerful non-members of the committee.

Members say presumptive House Speaker John A. Boehner’s candidate is Maria Cino, who was Ed Gillespie’s deputy chairman for day-to-day operations when he was RNC chairman from 2003 to 2004. She is not an RNC member.

The candidate of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and his nephew, Mississippi GOP Chairman Henry Barbour, is RNC general counsel and Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, a Steele loyalist and personal adviser.

Members say Mr. Rove’s favorite to replace Mr. Steele is former RNC co-chairman Ann Wagner of Missouri, a former ambassador to Luxembourg and whose husband, Ray Wagner, is close to Mr. Rove.

Members said Mrs. Wagner has been calling around to gauge receptivity to her as someone who can raise the money to pay off the RNC’s huge debt from the midterms and raise vast sums for the 2012 presidential elections. They said her strong suit was experience as RNC co-chairman for four years, as Missouri GOP chairman for six years and as manager of Rep. Roy Blunt’s Senate campaign this year, which she took from an 11 percentage point deficit to a 14-point margin of victory.

• Ralph Z. Hallow can be reached at rhallow@gmail.com.

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