WASHINGTON — Michael Steele is staying put as Republican Party chairman.
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Despite his widely condemned comments on Afghanistan, even his GOP critics want to avoid a drawn-out fight over the party's most prominent African-American just four months before midterm elections.
Instead, GOP elders are working around Steele, illustrating their lack of confidence in his leadership of the Republican National Committee and the challenge he would face should he seek a second term in January.
The outspoken Steele has faced calls for his resignation from conservatives and some in the GOP after he said that the nine-year-old conflict in Afghanistan was a mistaken "war of Obama's choosing." So far, Steele has ignored demands for him to step down.
And interviews with more than a dozen party operatives indicate there's little desire to wage a complicated, perhaps uncertain, effort to oust him with just six months left in his two-year term.
"Everyone is basically working around him," said former GOP Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, who added that Steele has marginalized himself further with every gaffe.
"Republicans have sort of put together a mode of operation for this election cycle that does not put the RNC chairman in a central role," Weber said. "That's not the optimal way of handling things. But in a very strange way that gives him some protection because there's no urgency to replace him — no matter how grave of a misstep he made."
Most Republicans interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid openly criticizing a chairman who, despite his troubles, controls crucial resources needed for the fall, like the party's voter lists.
These Republicans say that even critics are resigned to the fact that Steele will remain chairman through the fall. They say firing Steele now is difficult because at least two-thirds of committee members would have to vote to remove him, and he maintains a level of support, albeit diminishing, because of money he's distributed to state parties.
The GOP also could pay a political price. Trying to oust Steele could be an unwanted spectacle at a pivotal juncture, with weeks of headlines of Republicans in disarray heading into elections where the party is favored to win seats in Congress and governors' races.
Even a Republican considering challenging Steele says he would wait until next year.
"I don't necessarily feel you should change horses in the middle of a race," former North Dakota Republican Party Chairman Gary Emineth said Monday.
Come January, however, Steele likely will face a serious re-election challenge as the party gears up for the 2012 presidential race. Some Republicans say chances are slim that he wins a second term. Others argue that he might have a case if Republicans pick up congressional seats.
The first black to lead the GOP, Steele was a party outsider elected to a two-year term in January 2008 just as Barack Obama — the country's first black president — was taking office.
Steele's tenure has been rocky with frequent allegations of questionable spending, anemic fundraising, staff shake-ups and cringe-inducing comments. All that has prompted criticism from within Republican ranks and weakened the party figurehead.
GOP heavyweights and the party's campaign committees have stepped up their activity to fill a void created by what they call Steele's ineffectiveness.
Seizing on changes in campaign finance law, some of the party's best-known insiders created an ambitious fundraising and political organization to run TV ads and turn out voters this fall. Karl Rove, who was President George W. Bush's top political strategist, and Ed Gillespie, a former Republican Party chairman, launched American Crossroads with a goal of raising more than $50 million by November. Thus far, the group and its affiliate has brought in $8.5 million in June after a sluggish spring.
At the urging of Senate and House Republicans, Steele's committee also entered into a joint fundraising agreement called The Congressional Trust. It was a signal to donors wary of giving to the RNC that their money will be used for electing House and Senate candidates.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour also recently suggested that people should give money to his Republican Governors' Association for its 37 races this fall because Steele's organization can't be trusted with donors' money.
"I had to raise the RGA budget by $10 million because the RNC is in such bad shape," Barbour said at a private lunch according to an individual who attended and spoke on condition of anonymity. Barbour's effort to redirect donors seems to have paid off; he brought in a jaw-dropping $19 million in a three-month period.
Former RNC finance chairmen and other establishment Republicans are encouraging donors to give to the Senate GOP committee. An invitation to a fundraiser in Maine this weekend praises Sen. John Cornyn, the head of National Republican Senatorial Committee, as "a wise steward" of money.
All of those steps, Republicans say, are a direct reflection of Steele's low standing within the party.
After his latest gaffe, Steele spent the weekend calling key RNC members to control the damage. On Sunday, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham repudiated Steele's comments but neither demanded Steele's resignation, saying it was up to Steele to decide whether he could continue to lead the party.
By Tuesday, Steele had canceled an upcoming appearance at the Aspen Institute but was still scheduled to headline the Nevada GOP convention on Friday.
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