No Dents In Steele At RNC Debate

Following the debate between the five candidates for Republican National Chairman yesterday, two conclusions were reached by nearly everyone present for the 90-minute session at the National Press Club (and quite a few I spoke to who had watched it on television):

First, for all their criticism in print and on-line of incumbent Chairman Michael Steele, none of his four opponents in the race (which will be decided at the RNC winter meeting next week) landed a knock-out blow or even roughed up the embattled RNC chief.

Second, the event was a “sleeper,” even to the most seasoned of political junkies (and this reporter counts himself in that category, this being the fourth contested RNC race he has covered).

One wonders, in fact, why this debate (co-sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform, the Daily Caller, and the Susan B. Anthony List) was televised on C-SPAN.  The lion’s share of the questions dealt with process—how the party can get out of its $20 million post-election debt, what is the most important task of the RNC chairman, what they thought of the party’s 72-hour get-out-the vote program before election day, and whether the nomination of controversial Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell in Delaware was “a triumph of principle” or “disaster.” (None of the five contenders took the bait on a question that could lead to self-inflicted wounds with either “yes” or “no” responses and all took the occasion to say that nominations were strictly up to state parties).

Although Michigan GOP National Committeeman and self-styled “Kemp Gingrich guy” Saul Anuzis could make the case he has the strongest credentials in the conservative movement, the other three challengers —Wisconsin State GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Maria Cino, and former RNC Co-Chairman Ann Wagner—all underscored their conservatism with issue stands and praise for the tea party movement.

But so did Steele, who criticized Republicans for walking away from the conservative planks of the Contract With America in the 1990’s (“Dem-lite doesn’t sell well”) and voiced his pro-life, pro-marriage stands.

While the challengers stressed the party’s “historic debt” (as the day’s Washington Times headline blared) of $20 million, not one of them called Steele himself down on the issue.  Moreover, criticism that the RNC had abandoned its 72-hour “get out the vote”program in 2010 were brushed off by the national chairman.

“I’m not a top-down guy,” said Steele, explaining that the program and its funding were turned over to state parties to run.  He added that this saved considerable money from previous election cycles in which the 72-hour program was run out of the RNC and volunteers were provided with tickets to key states and paid hotel rooms.

(There was some controversy about the nature of the 72-hour program under Steele.  Following the debate, New York State GOP Chairman Ed Cox told me he heard Steele’s explanation but “I couldn’t find any signs of a get-out-the-vote effort in New York;” when I posed Cox’s remark to Steele, he replied: “That’s right, but that’s a problem particular to Republican politics in New York”).

With days to go before the 185 Member RNC elects a chairman, the likelihood is that the race will be decided more on grass-roots political acumen and personal relationships than ideology.  How could it, in a contest where all the candidates are asked to name “their political hero aside from Ronald Reagan?”  And as John Boehner and other congressional leaders attain a higher profile this year, the contest will probably not be decided on who the best GOP spokesman will be.

And it certainly won’t be decided on anything said or done at the debate January 3rd.