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At key moment, diverse GOP leadership choice

As the nation is on the verge of inaugurating its first black president, the Republican Party is facing a telling choice: whether to elect its first black chairman.
Image: Michael Steele
Michael Steele speaks at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., on Sept. 3. The former Maryland lieutenant governor is vying with four other challengers for RNC Chairman Mike Duncan's job.Ron Edmonds / AP file
/ Source: The New York Times

As the nation is on the verge of inaugurating its first black president, the Republican Party is facing a telling choice: whether to elect its first black chairman.

The contest for Republican Party chairman comes as Republican leaders seek to figure out what the party stands for, as well as what face to put forward as they struggle to avoid shrinking into a party of Southern white men in an increasingly diverse country.

The six candidates are four white men, including two from the South, and two black men: Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, and J. Kenneth Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state.

Because it is a six-way race in which ballots are cast anonymously, it is impossible to project who might win. But party leaders said Mr. Blackwell and Mr. Steele were viable candidates, particularly Mr. Blackwell, who has strong support from social conservatives.

The leadership struggle follows a campaign in which Democrats, led by President-elect Barack Obama, made geographical and demographic inroads, despite eight years in which President Bush and a previous party chairman, Ken Mehlman, tried to expand the ethnic and racial backdrop of the party.

The Republicans are grappling with sharp ideological and geographical divides, and the question of the candidates’ race has not been explicitly raised by the committee or the contenders. “I think it’s color blind; I don’t think people are talking about it,” said Mike Duncan, the current party chairman, chosen by President Bush, who is seeking re-election.

Racial strains emerge
Nevertheless, racial strains have emerged in the contest. Katon Dawson, the South Carolina Republican chairman, quit his membership in an all-white country club soon before he joined the race. And another candidate, Chip Saltsman, the Tennessee party chairman, was roundly criticized for distributing a holiday CD to party members that included a parody song called “Barack the Magic Negro.”

Some Republicans argued that electing a black chairman could prove helpful as the party struggles to rebuild.

“Race is not a consideration of why a person should become chairman of the R.N.C., but if the nation can celebrate its first African-American president, I would certainly think the Republican Party could celebrate its first African-American chairman,” said Jim Greer, the Florida Republican chairman, who endorsed Mr. Steele last week. “There certainly is an advantage of a credible message of inclusion if you have a minority as chairman.”

If Mr. Blackwell or Mr. Steele wins the chairmanship, it will still be difficult for Republicans to compete against a Democratic Party that made its way into the history books in November. Mr. Obama will be sworn in just a week before the 168 members of the committee are to gather here to choose the chairman.

Even Republicans describe this as their bleakest period since Watergate. Yet the party put another Republican in the White House just six years after Richard M. Nixon left office in disgrace in 1974.

“There were other valleys we’ve been in that were worse than this,” Mr. Duncan said. “I’m optimistic. I think we can come back from this. We are a center-right country. Only 20 percent of the people consider themselves liberal. That gives us a huge opportunity. We have to get our message refined. We’ll be back.”

Detailing the problems
Still, the problems the party faces now are laid out in often-agonizing detail by the six candidates as they appeal for the committee members’ votes.

“We fell behind in investment in technology," said Saul Anuzis, the Michigan chairman and a candidate for party chairman. "Clearly fund-raising is going to be a major challenge. I think we have a lot of challenges.”

The party has to choose from a field of candidates barely known outside of Washington. To date, no candidate has shown signs of being the kind of powerful public speaker that party members are yearning for to counter the opposition. Nor has any candidate presented a new message or vision to keep pace with the Democrats, Republicans acknowledge.

“I haven’t heard a vision,” said Joe Gaylord, a longtime Republican strategist who was the chief strategist for Newt Gingrich when Republicans seized control of the House in 1994. “If we do not become a future-oriented, solutions-oriented Republican Party, we are going to be in wilderness for a long, long time.”

In one telling moment at a debate last week, all six had the same answer when asked to name the best Republican president in the history of the nation: Ronald Reagan.

The presence of Mr. Steele and Mr. Blackwell has added some historical resonance to a contest that is usually viewed as a matter of inside baseball.

Party officials said this was the first time two serious black candidates had competed for the Republican chairmanship. The Democratic Party elected its first African-American chairman, Ronald H. Brown, in 1989.

Given the depth of the Republican Party’s difficulties — and the divisions over ideology and region being played out in the contest — party leaders said they did not think race would be a deciding factor in many, if any, votes.

“I don’t get the sense that race is a driver in the context of this election,” said Phil Musser, a Republican strategist who has been leading an effort to get the next party leader to invest resources and attention to improving the party’s technological abilities. “If it is, it’s a narrow minority. People are more interested in the plans for the committee and the ideological perspectives of the candidates running for chairman than they are about ethnicity.”

Beyond that, given Mr. Obama’s election and the lopsided support that Democrats drew from African-American voters, several Republicans said it was unrealistic to expect the party to make serious gains among black voters, at least for now. Instead, they said, the party should seek to recover its standing, in particular among Hispanic voters, where Republicans lost ground this year.

Mr. Steele has drawn criticism from conservatives because, while he opposes abortion, he supports an exemption in cases of incest or when the life of the woman is in danger.

“Those who want to obsess on those issues will continue to lose the American public, which is focusing on the economy and education and national security,” said Mr. Greer, the Florida chairman. “Values and principles are the foundation of our party. But if you are out of a job, or your 401(k) has halved in value, people are looking for leadership in those areas.”

Mr. Blackwell, who as Ohio’s secretary of state was at the center of a controversy over voter disenfranchisement, is running as a social conservative, drawing support from that still-potent segment of the party.

Over the years, the party has had its share of criticism over race matters in contests for public office. And the tensions it faces as it tries to deal with these issues were illustrated by problems Mr. Dawson and Mr. Saltsman encountered.

Mr. Dawson said the focus on his country club membership was an effort by opponents to distort his record and background.

“I resigned, I moved on, tried to correct it,” said Mr. Dawson, who owns an auto parts distributorship. “The country club issue is so bogus.”

Mr. Saltsman declined to renounce or apologize for sending out the parody song, saying it was a harmless joke. (Mr. Blackwell and Mr. Steele said they found nothing offensive about it.) Nonetheless, he said, the episode had hurt him.

“I don’t think it helped,” he said. “But I think we’ve gotten past it and people kind of see it for what it is, and what it was, and now my challenge is to talk about the future of the Republican Party.”

This article, , was first published in The New York Times.