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The Race for RNC Chair

By Greg Bobrinskoy

The six candidates running for chairman of the Republican National Committee were in Washington Monday at a debate sponsored by the Americans for Tax Reform. Attendees included state chairs Katon Dawson of South Carolina and Saul Anuzis of Michigan; former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell; former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele; Chip Saltsman, the former campaign manager for Mike Huckabee; and incumbent RNC Chairman Mike Duncan. Each is trying to win a plurality of votes among the 168 RNC members who will gather in the nation's capital at the end of the month. Other than a question about how many guns each candidate owns, the discussion centered almost exclusively on fiscal policy and the future of the party. Each candidate emphasized the party's need to close the technology gap with Democrats and to expand the party's appeal to minority groups.

Here is a rundown of each candidate, including their background, debate performance and an analysis of their place in the race:

Katon Dawson

Background: Chair of the South Carolina Republican Party. Dawson hasn't been helped by the fact that the biggest news surrounding his candidacy has been his former membership and recent resignation from an all-white country club in Columbia, S.C.

Debate: Dawson argued that South Carolina's state party was in disarray in 2002 until he stepped in and led the party's financial and electoral turnaround with Mark Sanford elected governor, two Republicans sent to the U.S. Senate, and 8 of 9 state-wide offices won. "Winning is possible", he concluded. Yet, as Ken Blackwell joked on stage, South Carolina is hardly a battleground state.

Analysis: Dawson seemed lost in the shuffle as he failed to convey an adequate set of credentials or aura of change (Southern white guy) that the Republican Party may be looking for.

Saul Anuzis

Background: Chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. Anuzis has done as much if not more than any candidate to create name recognition for his candicacy among Republicans and those in the media. His blog, That's Saul, Folks, has given him a tech-savvy rep and essentially put him on the map.

Debate: Anuzis painted himself as the Tim Pawlenty-like blue collar Republican best able to attract 'Reagan Democrats' back to the party. He cited his background as Lithuanian, having not learned English until he was seven, and a resident of suburban Michigan where his working class neighbors are leaving the party in droves. Referencing his previous membership in the Teamsters and as a Republican in a blue state, Anuzis did his best to come across as the strongest fighter among the bunch.

Analysis: Anuzis displayed a strong grasp of specific policy issues as a former backer of Jack Kemp and knowledge of the technical party politics ranging from the local to state level. He has obviously spent significant time working in the nuts and bolts of the party and his hard effort to become noticed among better known candidates may make him the dark horse of the race.

Ken Blackwell

Background: Former Secretary of State of Ohio and the first African American candidate to run for the state's governorship from a major party. He is Vice Chairman of the RNC Platform Committee and is regarded as a strong social conservative. Blackwell gained stature among Republican activists for his role in helping President Bush's 2004 re-election in Ohio and leading the move that banned same sex marriages in the state. Blackwell was a late entry into the field and recently released a list of supporters for his chairmanship which included Steve Forbes and James Dobson.

Debate: Blackwell referred to his candidacy as a "shareholders revolt". He spoke of the need to reinvigorate the conservative base, of which he has many supporters. He cited his experience of over 30 years as a party activist and officeholder, stating "I know how to win elections." Blackwell was not referring to his 2006 bid for Governor of Ohio in which he lost to Democrat Ted Strickland by a margin of 24 percent.

Analysis: Heading into the debate, Blackwell was definitely considered to be a top contender for the RNC position. Yet depending upon the importance of the debate in the minds of voting members (which no one knows), Blackwell's performance was far from spectacular. His playful comments added spark to a sometimes monotonous debate but he seemed overshadowed by Steele's greater ability to connect with the audience.

Michael Steele

Background: GOPAC chairman, and former lieutenant governor and state party chairman of Maryland. Steele is the most recognizable of the six contenders because of his frequent appearances on Fox News and the rare position of being a prominent African American in the Republican Party. Steele has been criticized by some conservatives as too moderate, with his involvement with the Republican Leadership Council, an organization of Republican moderates, as the greatest example (though Steele has said that he no longer is part of the organization because of its involvement in GOP primaries). Steele has also received criticism for his willingness to support moderate candidates in the party such as Wayne Gilchrest, a former Maryland congressman defeated in a 2008 primary. Yet despite the questioning by some of his conservative credentials, it has never seemed to hurt him politically. He was able to win Republicans' support during his 2006 run for the Senate, which he lost; and despite his association with moderate to liberal Republicans like Christine Todd Whitman and John Danforth, he is personally in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade and is against government funding for stem-cell research.

Debate: Steele said he sees the state of the Republican Party with a "glass half-full" attitude despite what he referred to as two consecutive "devastating" losses. He had no problem criticizing the Bush administration for its shortcomings, such as "a failure to communicate, Katrina, the bailout." At numerous times during the debate he emphasized the lack of influence the RNC chair has in creating significant change in the party, from attracting minorities to reorganizing its local infrastructure. Steele was easily the best communicator of the debate, speaking lively and clearly about his intentions for the party. Yet what was most notable was his organizational advantage, as "Steele" posters lined the balconies while many attendees wore "Steele" name labels or carried signs across the room.

Analysis: Steele gave the best performance of the debate, though how much that will influence RNC voters is unknown. He is the most charismatic and telegenic of the six running. Questions remain about whether his past support for a more moderate party or relatively weak fundraising record will hurt him. If the debate and chatter are any measure, Steele appears to have the edge in this race.

Chip Saltsman

Background: Chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party from 1999 to 2001 and manager of Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign. Saltsman created the biggest news surrounding his candidacy when he sent out a collection of songs to members of the RNC, one of which was titled "Barack the Magic Negro." Newt Gingrich and Mike Duncan criticized Saltsman for the move while Blackwell stood in his defense saying it showed the "hypersensitivity in the press regarding matters of race."

Debate: Saltsman talked extensively about his work fighting tax hikes in the state of Tennessee. He said his motive to run for the position is not about the party but about the country, so that more voices can be heard. Citing statistics showing that young Americans describe themselves as entrepreneurs wanting to run a business, he described his vision for a party platform of an "opportunity society" that could bring back the youth vote that Democrats have dominated in recent elections.

Analysis: While his experience in Tennessee politics and managing Mike Huckabee's campaign were clearly impressive he, like Dawson, failed to stand out enough to be seen as a top tier contender.

Mike Duncan

Background: The incumbent, Mike Duncan was elected to replace former RNC chair Ken Mehlman in 2007. Duncan was dubbed the 'Invisible Chairman' by California RNC Committeeman Shawn Steel in a December Politico article, in which Steel said Duncan was "installed in January 2007 by Karl Rove to be unobtrusive -- a mission he has carried out brilliantly. Many, if not most, Republican leaders and activists don't know who he is." There is some truth to Steel's criticism: During the 2008 election, Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, consistently appeared on major television networks and cable news shows defending Democratic candidates and attacking Republicans. Duncan hardly ever presented his views through the media. Duncan's advantage, however, was the prowess he showed in fundraising which allowed the RNC to significantly fund John McCain's campaign, allowing it to run almost neck and neck with Obama's fundraising machine until the last two months of the campaign. Duncan is also disliked by many in the conservative blogosphere and grassroots. Some have claimed he deserves credit for wins in the two runoff elections in Georgia and Louisiana, but as the incumbent he also bears the burden of Republicans' many crushing defeats.

Debate: Duncan noted the RNC's strong fundraising in the 2008 election, which enabled McCain to stay close to Obama and helped Republican congressional candidates across the country. Duncan also tried to characterize himself as an agent of change, a difficult theme for an incumbent to sell, especially one seemingly without strong communicative skills.

Analysis: Duncan proved himself to be the opposite choice to Steele. As a white Southerner lacking the ability to strongly convey his views to Americans through the media, Duncan's strengths lie in organization, experience, and fundraising skills.

Talk after the debate seemed to suggest that the race was a Blackwell-Steele contest. Yet this came mostly from party activists and media types, not necessarily those who will vote. Duncan's advantage with networking RNC members should not be overlooked. As of now, it seems an open race between Blackwell, Steele, and Duncan, with the vote set to take place Jan. 31 at the RNC winter meeting.

Greg Bobrinskoy is an Associate Editor at RealClearPolitics.