WASHINGTON — Who will the next Republican National Committee chairman be? What man will heed the call and rise to become the GOP's leading voice of reason, the loyal opposition to President Obama and sage guide for a once-mighty party cast mercilessly into the wild? The answer, apparently, depends on which one has the most guns. Seriously.
"Seven," bragged Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state, to a packed crowd at the National Press Club on Monday in the first RNC chairman's debate. "And I'm good."
Chip Saltsman, a former Tennessee GOP chief and another of the six men crossing swords that afternoon, detailed his whole stash of firearms -- lock, stock and barrel. "In my closet at home, I've got two 12-gauges, a 20-gauge, three handguns and a .30-06," he said. "And I'll take you on any time, Ken."
Fighting to hold his job, incumbent Mike Duncan manned up as well: four handguns and two rifles, for those keeping score. South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson couldn't be bothered to quantify his collection. "Too many to count," he noted. Michigan GOP chief Saul Anuzis owns two, "but they wouldn't let me carry them in Washington, D.C."
In a potentially ominous sign for his RNC prospects, Michael Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor, said he doesn't own any guns. But that's OK. Steele had the largest barrage of campaign paraphernalia on display at the debate -- by far. His ubiquitous stickers and posters were blue and white, which was a curious color choice for activists who watched on election night as the country turned from red to blue.
The candidates, their public and the media jammed into a cramped ballroom for the 90-minute confab. It was the GOP's first big chairmanship faceoff, but the National Press Club's fourth-largest ballroom, which speaks volumes about the embattled party's self-esteem. Even more were watching someplace more comfortable -- moderator Grover Norquist said it was the first-ever televised debate for RNC chair.
Gun ownership might sound like an unlikely topic upon which to choose a party leader. But it was one of the few topics upon which the six candidates offered any discernible degree of contrast.
All six men said they're pro-life and pro-school-choice. All six said Ronald Reagan (not Abraham Lincoln) was the country's best Republican president, although Blackwell offered up the most Reaganesque quips and quotes. All six said the party needs to return to its conservative roots (it's the message, not the movement, that needs mending). All six want to reach out to Hispanics. And black voters. And young voters. And Ron Paul voters. All six said they blog (that was a little less believable from Duncan, who noted, "We have to do it in the Facebook, with the Twittering, the different technology that young people are using today"). And while they didn't scream their way through a ranting list of states, all six praised outgoing Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean for a 50-state strategy they acknowledged has contributed to the Democratic takeover.
And all six mostly failed to contain their frustration with President Bush. Indeed, trying to lighten the mood while candidates hedged his question about the country's worst Republican president, Norquist joked, "It's easier if you list one of the dead ones." Dawson remarked, "We've got a few of those in the party these days."
Even Bush's strongest supporters have tossed him overboard in the interest of rebuilding the party -- or, at least, winning the chairman's race. "I've worked very hard for George Bush, as we all have," Duncan said, as if trying to share the blame. "But it's time to move forward."
It may seem odd to read an entire column about the RNC chair's race that doesn't mention Saltsman's Christmas CD to RNC members, which included the now-infamous "Barack the Magic Negro" track. But actually, it never came up at the debate; apparently, none of Saltsman's rivals considered it an issue that could help him gain traction. It was, notably, Saltsman, a highly skilled speaker, who decided to toss the word "magic" into his remarks -- twice.
"Magic." It's not a word that rolls off the tongues of most politicians, let alone twice in one hour. Unless they want it to.
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.