Who's Up and Who's Down After RNC Chairman Debate?

What moderator Grover Norquist dubbed correctly as the “first debate ever” between candidates for the chairmanship Republican National Committee was held yesterday. The result — inconclusive, much like most of the presidential primary debates — leaves the RNC on a wobbly course to its meetings later this month at which the new RNC chairman will be elected.

The exchange among present RNC Chairman Mike Duncan and five opponents drew considerable attention from party activists and the press. The main ballroom of the National Press Club was standing-room-only, and the two rows of tables for reporters were packed. There were even “spinmeisters” available for reporters after the debate. Veteran political consultant Tony Marsh, who is running the chairman’s race of former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, buttonholed me minutes after the debate concluded to tell me how well his man had done. When Marsh told me that the Steele team had enough votes to be competitive on the first ballot, I asked how many that was. He replied: “We’re not sharing our vote count yet.”

Republican National Chairman Mike Duncan talks to John Gizzi after first-ever chairmanship debate at National Press Club.

It is difficult to say who won and who lost. There are so many other forces at work in this race, that it is safe to say that even a good showing in the debate will not necessarily give a candidate the lift needed to insure victory in the vote of the 168-member RNC at its meeting late this month.. State Chairmen Katon Dawson of South Carolina and Saul Anuzis of Michigan came across as “take-charge guys,” both demonstrating they had organizational expertise and technological acumen. So, too, did former Tennessee State Chairman and Mike Huckabee campaign manager Chip Saltsman, who spoke eloquently of his break with his mentor, former Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist over a proposed income tax as a case of putting conservative principles first. But Salsman may have been irreparably hurt by the recent national controversy questioning his judgment in sending out a CD that included the song “Barack the Magic Negro.” (which was actually produced and played on national radio by Rush Limbaugh).

As always, Michael Steele was genial and articulate — citing his background as the son of a sharecropper’s daughter who saw him become Maryland’s first African-American lieutenant governor and discussing the influences of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. In the process, however, Steele also failed to fully dampen questions among conservatives about how solidly conservative he is. He specifically cited the “pragmatism” of Theodore Roosevelt as an influence on him and, when the candidates were asked to name a failure of the Bush Administration, Steele was the only one to say Katrina. (Conservatives usually point to the failures of two Democrats, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco rather than to the Bush Administration when discussing the worst natural disaster in American history). Following the debate, I spoke to Iowa’s two national committee members, Steve Scheffler and Kim Lehman, who made it clear they had both ruled out Steele because of the kind words he had previously voiced about the liberal Republican Leadership Council founded by former liberal GOP New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

Incumbent Chairman Mike Duncan appeared as “chairman-like” as any of the others and pointed with pride to his fund-raising skill that put the RNC in the black. However, some said that re-electing the chairman named by George W. Bush is akin to putting a used tire on a new car. Duncan did nothing to dispel this feeling by being the only candidate who failed to endorse an upcoming RNC resolution condemning the financial bailouts that have been supported by the Bush White House.

If there was any candidate who did not meet early expectations, it was clearly former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. Long a conservative hero in Ohio and nationally, Blackwell talked without animation about his ten-point plan for the revitalizing the party, holding up a copy of the manifesto. He talked in general terms about how he had won 13 of 17 elections he had been in, and threw a jab at Dawson saying he couldn’t match his record of wins in “the swing state of South Carolina.” He spoke of being “an activist, thinker, and office-holder” — but didn’t speak in terms of being an organizer.

Blackwell has been the subject of much discussion over the past few days, ever since a group of social conservatives and a few others on the right held a conference call on Friday and hastily agreed to endorse the Ohioan for chairman, without even waiting for the Monday debate. Organized by Virginia National Committeeman Morton Blackwell, the pro-Ken Blackwell group included such notables on the right as Gary Bauer, Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum, and Tony Perkins of Family Research Council (which has employed the former Ohio official as a senior fellow). Also weighing in for Blackwell for chairman were some conservatives not so identified with the social issues, such as Steve Forbes (whose 2000 presidential campaign Blackwell was a national co-chairman of), former Atty. Gen. Ed Meese, and American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene.

What is leaving other conservatives mystified and a bit angry is just why the Blackwell group moved for Ken Blackwell so quickly. In earlier conversations among conservative leaders, all were aware that the debate was coming up Monday. Moreover, they had previously agreed that a main qualification for a new chairman, given a Democratic President, would be the ability to publicly communicate well the party’s conservative positions, an ability Blackwell did not demonstrate in the debate. Apparently the Blackwell group wanted to make their endorsement several days before the straw vote among conservatives on their favorite for chairman that is to be held tomorrow, Tuesday

There is a also an unusually early meeting of RNC members later this week to discuss the chairmanship they will vote on at the end of the month. Had the se pro-Blackwell conservatives waited for the debate, they might have reached a different conclusion, since there are several other contenders who can match Blackwell in terms of conservative credentials and history.

For now, perhaps the parting comment of New Jersey National Committeeman David Norcross is the best post-mortem on the debate: “No runs, no hits, no errors.”

(Watch full C-SPAN coverage of the RNC Chairman Debate here)