Chairman Michael Steele an afterthought at RNC debate, while Anuzis, Wagner and Cino make gains

Jon Ward Contributor
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Following a debate among the five candidates to be chairman of the Republican National Committee on Monday, the presumed front-runner Reince Priebus ran from the room to avoid reporters’ questions, while the sitting chairman, Michael Steele, lounged in the back talking to friends and supporters, his arms wrapped across the chairs on either side of him.

Steele did better in the debate than many expected, but was nonetheless mostly an afterthought. Priebus, whom an aide said left the room without answering questions to talk with a lone reporter from his home state of Wisconsin, did far worse by most accounts, delivering lines in vague rhetoric that often left the room silent.

While Priebus has collected the most public commitments from committee members, it may be the other three candidates – Michigan state GOP chair Saul Anuzis, former Ambassador to Luxembourg Ann Wagner and Bush administration veteran Maria Cino – who benefit from the debate.

Anuzis emphasized his ability to help the GOP move into the 21st century with better use of technology, Wagner was most direct in challenging and criticizing Steele, and Cino was the picture of efficiency in presenting her credentials as a fundraiser and organizer.

Some in the GOP said the debate would have no impact on the RNC election, where the committee’s 168 members will vote Jan. 14 on who will lead the party in 2011 and 2012. But others said the debate would influence some members’ opinions, at least on the margins.

About a dozen committee members attended the debate, held at the National Press Club and co-hosted by The Daily Caller and Americans for Tax Reform. They were guarded in their comments, in keeping with the closed and often insular culture of the RNC membership.

Louis Pope, a committeeman from Maryland, was most blunt about Priebus’s performance.

“I’m a fan of Reince, but he did not come across well,” said Pope, who is committed to vote for Steele, but also said he knows who he will vote for once Steele drops out after the first or second ballot. He declined to say who he will ultimately vote for.

Alex Mooney, the chairman of the Maryland GOP, also said he would vote for Steele on the first ballot, but like Pope readily acknowledged that Steele would not last more than a ballot or two.

“I’ll probably hold out until the very end,” said Mooney, who said he was scheduled to meet with Cino and Anuzis later in the day.

It is in meetings like those where the chairman’s race will be won or lost, as committee members jockey for commitments or pledges.

Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Texas Republican Party, said he was also undecided, but told TheDC that he was most impressed with Wagner and Anuzis during the debate.

It was a debate that seesawed between questions on policy and questions that focused on the RNC’s operation. A lightning round toward the end provided some of the most entertaining moments.

“Favorite bar? Probably my kitchen table,” said Wagner, after she misheard a question from moderator Tucker Carlson, TheDC’s editor in chief, about what her favorite book was. She blushed when informed of her error and quickly said that former President George W. Bush’s new memoir was a favorite of hers.

Wagner said she owned 16 guns when ATR President Grover Norquist asked each candidate how many firearms they owned. Cino and Steele said they had none, Anuzis had four, and Priebus said he had five.

Steele himself stumbled on the book question, wryly stating that his favorite book was Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” He remarked that sometimes his chairmanship has felt like that. But he then quoted the opening line of Charles Dickens’s classic “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

As for serious criticism of Steele, it came only a few times. Wagner opened the debate by stating in her prepared remarks that the RNC “is broken and it needs to be fixed.”

Almost every candidate made some mention of the RNC’s financial woes under Steele, which has left it badly in debt. The most specific critiques came when Carlson asked Steele whether he made the right decision in not funding the traditional 72 hour Get-Out-The-Vote program in the fall campaign’s final days.

Steele defended his decision – “It was a wise choice,” he said – but then abruptly also contested the premise of the question: “It was not discontinued. It was just not put out the way that folks have been used to seeing it,” he said.

He said that instead of sending Capitol Hill staffers around the country, the RNC set up a phone bank of 100 phones in Washington to save money. He said paying for volunteers to go out on the road would have been “a waste of resources.”

Yet former RNC political director Gentry Collins, in a Nov. 16 resignation letter, said that “the RNC’s vaunted 72-hour program was left largely unfunded.” He said in the letter that state parties did not find out they would not be getting the kind of resources they usually do from the RNC until Oct. 22, a week before the 72-hour window began.

And a source intimately familiar with the GOTV program, or lack thereof, said Steele’s mention of 200,000 volunteers was a reference to state party workers who were “not sent [out] by the RNC.”

The other candidates disagreed strongly with Steele’s defense of the GOTV failure.

“We do need a fully funded GOTV effort across the board … and it comes down to money,” said Priebus.

Cino said that when she oversaw Bush’s 72-hour effort in the 2004 presidential election, it was 350 volunteers that “pushed Ohio over the top” and helped Bush win reelection.

But Cino was dogged by a question about her involvement as a lobbyist for Pfizer during the negotiations between the Obama administration and drug companies. The charge on the right is that Cino lobbied for President Obama’s health-care overhaul. When she said she had not done so — “I worked against death panels and rationing,” she said — a few members of the audience grumbled loudly that she had not answered the question.

The most up-to-date whip counts have found Priebus with about 30 votes, with the others all under 15. A candidate needs 85 of the 168 votes to win. A Politico whip count, however, found 88 votes adamantly against Steele, which would all but eliminate him from contention.

Priebus has faced growing criticism from other candidates, namely Anuzis, over whether he was involved in helping businesses procure money from Obama’s stimulus bill. Priebus denies the charge, and was not questioned about it during the debate.

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