Saturday, November 11, 2006

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is being pulled in several directions — to take over as the national leader of the Republican Party in two months, to take a Cabinet post in the Bush administration or to go into the private sector.

“No one from the White House or the Republican National Committee has formally offered me” the RNC chairmanship or a Cabinet post, Mr. Steele told The Washington Times yesterday.

Top national Republican leaders have told Mr. Steele they want him to succeed Ken Mehlman as RNC chairman in January and are discussing the move with White House chief political strategist Karl Rove.

Other top Republicans, including Mr. Rove, think Mr. Steele should be rewarded for what was widely regarded as his high-quality campaign for the U.S. Senate, even though black Marylanders remained loyal in numbers to the Democratic Party on Tuesday to elect Mr. Steele’s white opponent, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin.

Mr. Steele, 48, sounded ready, even eager, to assume a post somewhere within the party, and to steer a GOP course distinguishable from the one that has disillusioned many voters in recent years.

“The GOP must return to efficient government, to appropriate spending priorities that are not out of line, that don’t create deficits, that speak to a strong national defense without failing to understand the need for diplomacy, and the things that will keep this country strong,” he said.

“My campaign opened up a lot of eyes about how we can be effective on the ground in urban communities and diverse communities across the country, and hopefully I’ll have something to offer,” Mr. Steele said.

Mr. Mehlman, as reported yesterday in The Washington Times, has decided to step down at the end of his two-year term when the RNC convenes its annual winter meeting in January in Washington.

Party campaign strategists and elected officials generally agree that Mr. Steele has the political experience, personality and campaign skills to continue a career in politics — which is precisely what many in the Bush administration would like to see.

Spokesmen for the administration occasionally point out that President Bush has appointed more black, Hispanic and other minorities to top-level posts than any other president.

Mr. Steele is said to be especially popular with the 165-member RNC — made up of 50 state party chairmen and an elected committeeman and committeewoman from each state.

“I will be happy if he decides to run for national chairman,” Florida Republican Chairwoman Carole Jean Jordan said. “I served with him on the [national] committee when he was the Maryland chairman. He’s one of us.”

He also appears to have unqualified support from top Republicans in his own state.

“Michael would be an excellent chair,” said Joyce Lyons Terhes , an RNC member from Maryland. “He is admired and respected by the members of the committee who got to know him when he was chairman of the Maryland GOP.”

Others were more reserved in their judgment.

“Steele was an excellent candidate in Maryland, and his experience from that race should be a tremendous asset to the party if he succeeds Ken Mehlman as chairman of the RNC,” Texas RNC member Bill Crocker said. “However, I just don’t know enough about his background and basic philosophy to know whether or not he would be the best choice to succeed Mehlman.”

Mr. Crocker said the national chairmanship “is going to be critically important to the well-being of the Republican Party in the foreseeable future, and we need the very best we can put there.”

Some backers of Mr. Steele fear that a two-year stint as RNC chairman and therefore chief defender of Mr. Bush and his polices will undermine his future in politics by tying him too closely to a president of uncertain popularity.

But as of now, Mr. Steele doesn’t sound like a partisan pit bull defending the White House.

“This election was a show of a lack of confidence in the leadership and the direction of the party and the administration,” he said. “I think that as a party we need to address that.”

Mr. Steele is finishing up his first and only term in elected public office, though he had been an elected county and state party chairman.

He said he has “not heard from anyone” at the White House and has not entered any serious talks with the RNC.

“There has been no serious offer or anything put on the table,” Mr. Steele said. “I have just for the last few days been enjoying being at home and actually getting reacquainted with the family.”

Mr. Steele has one son in college and another about to enter college, and employment in the private sector might be an attractive financial option at this point, friends say.

Cabinet secretaries earn $183,500 year.

The RNC “chairman’s salary equals what the speaker of the House makes, which is roughly $200,000 a year,” RNC Communications Director Brian Jones said.

And Mr. Steele said he is not finished with politics.

“Losing is something that it strengthens me. I learn from it,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you won’t win future races.”

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