Steele’s foes within GOP yet to settle on a viable opponent to run against him

Jon Ward Contributor
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For all the talk of replacing Michael Steele at the Republican National Committee, Republicans who want him out are having a difficult time figuring out who’s the man or woman to do it.

Some think an opponent needs to be settled upon this week. Others – particularly two of the men who are expected to run against Steele if the chairman runs for a second term – said Tuesday they were not in a rush to commit.

“I’m in no hurry to decide one way or another,” said Saul Anuzis, a Michigan member of the RNC who ran for chairman in 2009, lasting five rounds but never getting more than 31 votes from the 186 RNC members.

Katon Dawson, who was the most serious challenger to Steele in 2009, also said Monday he was not yet ready to make any announcements.

Dawson, the former chair of the South Carolina Republican Party, said no one has emerged that could unite the full contingent of RNC members who want Steele out.

“They’re not going to coalesce behind one person because that one person has not shown up yet,” Dawson said.

Dawson, who in July called for Steele to be fired, said “that one person has just got the wrong last name and it’s Bush. The one person is Jeb Bush.”

“If I had my pick of a former governor to run the RNC … it would be Jeb Bush,” Dawson said, though he admitted that he did not think the former Republican governor of Florida and younger brother of former President George W. Bush would seriously consider such a move.

Bush did not respond to a request for comment.

Steele has not yet declared whether he will seek a second term, but he is widely expected to do so. One of his biggest backers could be former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, but a spokeswoman on Monday ignored a question e-mailed to her about whether Palin supports Steele.

It is a sign of how badly some want a new chairman that the list of names being floated to replace Steele seems to expand and mutate with each passing day. Mike Duncan, the past chairman of the RNC who was defeated by Steele in 2009, has had his name floated in recent days. Anuzis said former Bush White House political advisers Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie were behind the rumor, trying to see if support for Duncan materializes.

“There’s no question that there have been some concerns, many of which have been raised publicly and privately, with respect to how things have gone [under Steele],” Anuzis said. “Those are the aspects that today people are trying to judge whether that can be fixed internally or whether that requires a change.”

Of Duncan, Anuzis said, “there’s a lot of people who respect Mike and think he’s done a good job. There’s a lot of people who think his time came and went. There’s some interest out there. He will be one of the viable possible candidates.”

Others trying to influence the debate include Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the head of the Republican Governors Association, who was not shy about criticizing Steele over the last several months. Top aides to House Speaker-to-be John Boehner of Ohio have played some role in floating names, such as Maria Cino, a little-known bureaucrat from the Bush administration Department of Transportation.

Barbour himself has rejected calls to return to the job he held in 1994, instead indicating a desire to run for president in 2012. His nephew, Henry Barbour, is a committee member from Mississippi and has been mentioned by several sources as someone who could defeat Steele.

Nonetheless, one Washington Republican operative voiced certainty that someone will be found to take Steele on.

“He will be derailed, just no horse yet,” the GOP operative said.

But the RNC’s 168 voting members have a strong sense of tribalism about their choice, and bristle at the thought of being told who to choose as their leader.

And while Steele’s opponents try to figure out a way forward, the chairman has time to consolidate support and add to the votes he has already locked up, which are between 40 and 50 according to several estimates. He needs 86 votes to win.

If Anuzis is to run, he said he will likely announce a decision at the Republican Governors Association meeting in San Diego next week. At that point the picture should be clearer as to who the candidates are. From that point, they will have less than two months to run a campaign before the Jan. 11 RNC vote.

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