WASHINGTON — Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele fought for his job Monday in a debate with four rivals, defending his troubled tenure with a simple refrain: The party won elections since he took over two years ago.
"My record stands for itself," he said in a debate at the National Press Club. "We won."
Yet while none of his rivals criticized Steele to his face, each called the national party a debt-ridden, broken machine. Each also vowed to restore the discipline and fundraising that will be crucial to helping the party's eventual presidential nominee take on a campaign by Democratic President Barack Obama that could raise and spend $1 billion.
"How can an organization that has lost its credibility, is $20 million in debt ... lead us into 2012? ... It's time for change," said Ann Wagner, a former national party co-chairwoman from Missouri.
"The Republican National Committee is at a moment of crisis," said Saul Anuzis, a former state party chairman from Michigan.
Two others at the debate who were seeking Steele's job were Wisconsin state party Chairman Reince Priebus and Maria Cino, a former deputy chairwoman of the Republican National Committee.
Steele, a former lieutenant governor from Maryland, is widely expected to lose his bid to win another two-year term when the 168 members of the Republican National Committee vote on Jan. 14.
He's been prone to gaffes, such as calling the Afghanistan war, launched by former President George W. Bush, a war of Obama's choosing. In a minor one during Monday's debate, he said that "War and Peace," by Leo Tolstoy, was his favorite book, then volunteered the line, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." That line is from "A Tale of Two Cities" is by Charles Dickens.
And he's been a disappointing fundraiser. Some insiders say the party will end up with a debt from this election of about $20 million. As of Monday, the committee owed a net of $13 million, according to figures compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The Democratic National Committee, by comparison, owes a net of $5.8 million.
The website Politico reported Monday that Steele can't possibly win, saying that 88 committee members plan to vote against him. If true, that would make it impossible for him to tally the 85 votes out of 168 needed to win the job.
Punctuating Steele's challenge, two of his top aides, chief of staff Michael Leavitt and spokesman Doug Heye, announced their resignations Monday.
While Steele defended his tenure in the debate, he argued for his view of the party against a vision offered in large part by the man widely considered his chief rival, Wisconsin's Priebus.
Asked at one point about specific spending cuts in the federal government, Steele insisted that the party chairman focus on the mechanics of politics and leave policy decisions to Republicans in elected office.
"We need to be clear here about the role that we have here," Steele said. "You don't do policy, and the reality of it is, we don't, in this perch. We do politics."
He said the party chairman could take the message from party members to elected leaders in Congress, but that openly advocating a policy choice would draw a rebuke from congressional leaders.
"If you get it wrong, you'll be reminded: 'You don't do policy,' " he said.
Priebus urged a more aggressive role in policy.
"We lick the envelopes and put up the signs and do the hard work. ... Guess what: We expect a certain result," he said. "I think the party does have a role in enforcing what that expectation is with our elected officials."
At another point, Steele took issue with a question about which policy positions should disqualify someone to be a Republican.
"We cannot be a party that sits back with a litmus test and excludes, and the national chairman cannot go into a state: 'You're less Republican than you are, therefore I will not talk with you and only talk with you.' That is not the Republican Party that I joined at 17 years old," he said. "And it will not be the Republican Party I lead over the next two years. Trust me."
Priebus said tough times for the country demanded tough talk from the party chairman.
"Being the standardbearer for the Republican Party has to take into account that our country's in great peril," Priebus said.
"If we don't have a chairman who understands that being a Republican means something, that if you're pro-abortion, pro-stimulus, pro-GM bailout, pro-AIG, well, you know, guess what, you might not be a Republican," Priebus added.
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