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As McCain Slips, RNC Wannabes Get Bold

As McCain Slips, RNC Wannabes Get Bold

By Reid Wilson - October 29, 2008

The 2008 elections haven't even ended yet and already the first contest of 2009 is well under way. Sources tell Real Clear Politics that several prominent GOPers have already begun jockeying for position to run for chair of the Republican National Committee.

But candidates may have a tougher time getting through what may be a crowded field than they expected. Two sources say current RNC chairman Mike Duncan has held discussions about the possibility of seeking a second term when members vote in January, with one source saying Duncan has already made phone calls to some RNC members.

"Duncan certainly has earned the respect of people," said one Midwestern party chairman who asked not to be named discussing internal politics.

Others, including South Carolina party chairman Katon Dawson, former Tennessee party chief Chip Saltsman and Michigan party head Saul Anuzis, are all said to be contemplating a bid for an upgrade to the national office. The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder reported Tuesday that Texas Republican Party chairwoman Tina Benkiser has started making phone calls to gauge support.

Dawson, of South Carolina, has been the most open in making preparations many see as a prelude to a bid for the top spot. Two weekends after the election, Dawson will host a group of RNC members and GOP officials at a conference designed to examine the outcome of the 2008 elections at a posh resort in Myrtle Beach.

Dawson also lunched with prominent conservative bloggers including Matt Lewis and Patrick Ruffini, among others, according to one source with knowledge of the meeting. The group was assembled by New Media Strategies, which reached out to Dawson, the source said.

Anuzis, who has long denied interest in the race, was recently thrust into the limelight after loud objections to Senator John McCain's decision to pull out of Michigan. That decision could be a catalyst for his renewed interest in the race.

It is little wonder, though, that so many state party chairs are interested in the race. Several GOP officials and aides said state chairs are frustrated with McCain's campaign thanks to a marked lack of attention. "They never properly utilized or incorporated or listened to the state chairmen," one Eastern party chair. "They made a lot of tactical decisions and a lot of message decisions that I think they could have benefited from the state chairman, to find out where the country's at."

Few will openly discuss the election, which would take place on January 23 and hinge on the votes of the 168 members of the Republican National Committee. That's because if McCain is elected president, he would likely pick his own nominee, who would then be elected unanimously. Only if McCain loses on Tuesday would the RNC feel free to pick its own chair.

Hence the unwillingness to discuss one's own race, lest one appear to suggest McCain may lose. Even Duncan, the current national chairman, wouldn't discuss his own future. "Chairman Duncan talks to RNC members and leaders within the party each and every day. With that said, he has not made any decisions concerning his future plans," RNC communications director Danny Diaz told RCP. "In addition, we believe that President McCain will name his RNC Chairman some time next year."

As McCain's chances appear to dwindle, potential candidates are showing less caution about appearing to assume, too soon, that a Democrat will control the White House. "You've had a small group of people running now for a long time and [the RNC] is certainly ripe for change," said the Midwestern party chair.

The party's central committee could also face some candidates not currently among them. Saltsman, a former top adviser to ex-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist who then ran Governor Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign, is said to be taking a close look at the race. Huckabee's former campaign chief has called others likely to run for chair to tell them he has considered the contest.

Michael Steele, the GOPAC chairman and former Maryland lieutenant governor, is considering his own run after very public overtures toward the job after the 2004 elections. That year, he was bypassed in favor of Ken Mehlman, and has told associates he will take a lower key approach this time around, the Atlantic's Ambinder first reported.

Then again, some fans have reached out to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, urging him to consider the race, multiple sources say. "There are a lot of people who are asking Mr. Romney to consider it," said Ron Kaufman, seen as Romney's biggest backer on the RNC. Still, he was quick to add, Romney "is focused on one thing: Helping McCain win. Call him optimistic, but he doesn't think this thing is over yet."

Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom echoed the point. "Governor Romney is pouring all his energy into electing McCain-Palin and other Republicans," Fehrnstrom said. "He hasn't expressed any interest in the party chairmanship and he's taken no steps in pursuit of it."

As Election Day creeps closer and a McCain loss and steep drops in the House and Senate seemingly more certain by the hour, some Republicans are looking to the race for RNC chairman as a jumping-off point for a new beginning. "This is the second election in a row where we've been badly out-hustled, badly out-organized," the Eastern party chairman agreed. Citing technology as an example of something on which Democrats are far ahead of the GOP, he said: "We've got to figure out a way to get back into the game on that. At least a few of these guys definitely understand that."

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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