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Showdown over GOP leadership opens rifts

Following the election, the normally low-profile race to head the GOP's national committee has turned into a six-man showdown that has opened rifts along racial, regional and ideological lines.
Image: Republican National Committee
A projected image of a waving American flag is used as the Republican National Committee unveils their national convention lectern and podium at the Xcel Center in St. Paul, Minn., on Aug. 28, 2008.Charles Rex Arbogast / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Following an election that has left Republicans with no clear vision about how to regain power, the normally low-profile race to head the GOP's national committee has turned into a six-man showdown that has opened rifts along racial, regional and ideological lines.

As Republicans debate their future, the contest for chairman of the Republican National Committee has become a proxy for the major questions at the center of the party's challenges: how to attract young and minority voters, win outside the South and counter an increasingly powerful Democratic majority.

After Chip Saltsman, a candidate for chairman, sent party members a CD that included the song "Barack the Magic Negro," he received sharp criticism from former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and other Republicans who worry that the party is losing touch with the moderate, suburban voters who are key to winning national elections. But nearly all of the candidates are facing intense scrutiny from party factions, as GOP officials view the next chairman as a vital figure in the post-Bush era.

The hopefuls are campaigning as though they were running for president, bombarding RNC members with calls and e-mails, appearing on national cable shows, enlisting allies to rally support and, in Saltsman's case, piloting his Piper Arrow plane around the country to meet with committee members.

Heavy interest in the race has also caused leading party figures, including former House majority leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, to become involved. Americans for Tax Reform will hold a candidate debate Monday, and RNC members have scheduled two unprecedented private meetings to discuss the challengers next week, including a session with the most conservative members of the RNC, who are looking to make sure the next chairman embraces their ideas.

"What you're watching is, as the party assesses why it lost, you have to understand what happened before you can figure out what to do," said David Winston, a Republican pollster. "The majority coalition that was put together by Reagan at the presidential level and Newt at the congressional level is gone — the challenge is how to rebuild that majority. You've got to begin to answer what caused it to fall apart, and once you figure it out, you figure out the steps you need to rebuild."

The 168 RNC members, including three from each state, will vote on a new chairman in meetings in Washington this month. Because President Bush has recommended the past several party chairmen, the contest is the first open race to lead the committee in a decade.

A regional divide has emerged between North and South, with former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael S. Steele and Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis pitted against Saltsman of Tennessee and Katon Dawson, the South Carolina party chairman. While not criticizing the candidates or party members from the South, Steele and Anuzis have emphasized the importance of competing in states where the GOP has struggled in recent years.

"If we are a party that can speak to Utah, South Carolina and Kansas, but can't reach voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, we will be a losing party," Anuzis has said. "We must adopt a strategy that carries our message to every state." The Michigan leader has also tried to cast himself as a different kind of Republican, noting that he is a member of the Teamsters union and a rider of a Harley-Davidson Road King.

The two black candidates are perhaps the most ideologically divided. Former Ohio secretary of state J. Kenneth Blackwell has long been embraced by conservative groups such as the anti-tax Club for Growth, while Steele has faced criticism for being, until recently, a leader of the Republican Leadership Council, which urges party members to be more tolerant of candidates who support abortion rights.

All-white country club
Steele emphasizes the need for the GOP to appeal to African Americans and other minority groups, while Blackwell dismissed the Saltsman controversy as "hypersensitivity" and has stressed his experience as an elected official over concerns about diversity.

Dawson has spent weeks highlighting his efforts to get blacks involved in South Carolina politics, following revelations that until this fall he had belonged to an all-white country club.

Saltsman's run was complicated even before the CD controversy. He ran Huckabee's presidential campaign last year, leaving some party officials wary of picking someone associated with a potential 2012 candidate, particularly after Huckabee made calls on Saltsman's behalf.

And Kentucky's Mike Duncan, the current GOP chairman, is running for reelection despite sharp criticism from some party activists who wonder how he could be rewarded with another term after presiding over the November defeat. Gingrich has blasted what he believes are Duncan's overly aggressive efforts to link President-elect Barack Obama to the scandal surrounding Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), while DeLay, who is close to Blackwell, mocked Duncan's "horrible idea" of creating a think tank in party headquarters.

But Duncan has been emboldened by post-Election Day victories in congressional runoffs in Georgia and Louisiana, giving him a clear message: The party was defeated by an unusually strong Obama organization and appeal that cannot be replicated.

"Obama was a phenomenon," Duncan said in an interview. "We know how to win elections."

Several GOP officials said Duncan's strong relationships with GOP leaders, fundraising ability and competence running the party make him the favorite, despite the Election Day results.

But Cathie Adams, an RNC member from Texas, said Duncan is a "nice man," but should be replaced because "we lost, and we lost pretty baldly."

Her preferred candidate, Blackwell, is anathema to some Republicans who agree with his opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion but do not think this is a time for a conservative activist.

"We are known to be the party of pro-life, we are known to be the party of traditional marriage," said Jim Greer, chairman of the Florida GOP, who has floated his name as a candidate but has not entered the race. "But once we affirm that, we need to move on. We need to focus on the issues that are being talked about at the dinner table."

Internet drive
Despite their differences, the candidates are running similarly styled campaigns, some modeled after tactics pioneered by Obama in his run for president. After the Democrat's success organizing online, all of the candidates are promising to increase the presence of Republicans on the Internet, as Anuzis has even noted his use of the messaging service Twitter. Several have signed a pledge by a group of younger activists who have started a Web site called Rebuild the Party, promising that at least 40 percent of the candidates in competitive congressional races now held by Democrats will be younger than 40.

All have also embraced the strong opposition to government bailouts that exists among the GOP faithful and are emphasizing that they would not veer from party principles.

"I'm trying to avoid the use of words that start with 're,' words like renewal, rebuild, recharge, re-this and re-that," Steele wrote in a memo to RNC members. "I'm convinced we should not re-anything. Instead, we must stand proudly for the timeless principles our Party has always stood for."