Steele holds backing of GOP brass outside capital

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Despite a series of missteps that have drawn criticism in Washington, GOP Chairman Michael Steele still enjoys the support of many state party chiefs, grass-roots activists and, most importantly, Republican National Committee members who hired — and can fire — him.

From California to Maine and Florida, local Republican leaders praise Steele as a visible spokesman toeing the conservative line for a party lacking the bully pulpits of the White House and majority leadership in Congress. They forgive his frequent verbal blunders.

Steele is cheered for raising more than $80 million last year; that there’s only $8 million left in the RNC account is ignored by party leaders outside Washington. He’s also credited with helping engineer Republican victories in the Virginia and New Jersey governors’ races, even though a GOP-friendly political landscape contributed heavily to the wins.

“Has he done a perfect job? Well, no. But overall, he’s done a very good job,” said Colorado GOP chief Dick Wadhams, who didn’t back Steele for chairman.

Bill Crocker, a Texas committeeman who also opposed Steele, focused on the upside of what he called a mixed record. “If he loses, we all lose, so I’m going to support him to the fullest extent that I’m able.”

And, echoing many others, former Nevada Gov. Bob List, a newly elected committeeman, said, “I don’t have anything negative to say about his performance as chairman at all.”

Interviews with nearly two dozen Republicans across the country found that local party leaders and members of the 168-person RNC — which, a year ago, chose Steele for a two-year term — still back him wholeheartedly or are giving him the benefit of the doubt, withholding judgment until after the 2010 elections.

They largely look past the gaffes that have enraged longtime establishment Republicans and GOP elders in Washington, who fear Steele is damaging the party’s image and its long-term fiscal health.

“The chairman still will be judged on the basis of how much money did he raise and how many candidates did he elect,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters this week.

Most recently, Steele angered Capitol Hill leaders by predicting the GOP won’t win House control this fall. He also drew their ire when he criticized fellow Republicans in a book that GOP leaders didn’t know he was writing until it was published.

His GOP critics were irked further when he told them to “get a life” and “shut up.” Steele also is drawing fire over how he spends the party’s money, such as giving $20,000 to the GOP in the Northern Mariana Islands, and for collecting payment for his speeches.

A handful of critics within the RNC are considering taking steps at the committee’s winter gathering in Hawaii later this month to go on the record demanding that Steele cancel his book tour and direct him to donate his earnings to the party. It may be a moot point; the tour may be over by then.

Mindful of such backlash, Steele sounded contrite in an interview this week with The Associated Press. He said the RNC has “turned some important corners” but expressed disappointment with himself for causing difficulty for the party with his words and deeds.

“It’s not about me. It should never be about me as chairman. It should be about the party … and what the party is doing on behalf of our elected officials and our activists,” Steele said.

His plan for his second year: “We want to keep the eye on the prize, which is winning elections around the country and fighting for these principles we believe in.”

In the raw political sense, RNC members are the only people who matter to Steele’s future as chairman. And Steele has taken great care to cater to his constituency, sending money to states for party-building purposes and lavishing attention on Republican strongholds.

Two-thirds of the RNC would have to vote to fire Steele. Outside of Washington, though, there’s little appetite for kicking him out of office.

“You measure people by winning; on that score he’s done a great job,” said Connecticut GOP chief Chris Heady, referring to the RNC’s record of helping Republicans win 26 of 37 special elections last year, including state legislative and judicial races.

Rick Beltram, a former Spartanburg County GOP chairman in South Carolina, credits Steele with starting to rehabilitate the party’s image and mission. “What we are, who we are and how we’re going to go sell it, that’s all in focus now,” Beltram said.

As for charges that Steele is hurting the party, former New Hampshire GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen said: “Ridiculous. The criticism is undeserved and unfair.”

“Some toes have been stepped on,” allowed Pat Rogers, a committeeman in New Mexico. “But there were maybe some times when toes needed to be stepped on.”

Still, some of Steele’s deeds and words give others pause.

“We haven’t gone as much in the direction that I’d like to see us go,” said Gary Jones, Oklahoma’s GOP chairman. But Jones said he wouldn’t go so far as to seek Steele’s removal.

Some critics claim Steele is trying to position himself for a presidential run.

“Oh no! My God, no!” Steele responded. He called such talk “silly inside-the-Beltway craziness.”

Steele’s situation isn’t unprecedented.

Howard Dean was loved by the state parties and grass-roots activists when he was Democratic National Committee chairman but was hated by many party leaders and insiders in Washington through his four-year watch — one that saw Democrats win control of both Congress and the White House.