Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele defended his track record and fended off attacks from four challengers vying for his position in a debate held at the National Press Club on Monday afternoon. Sixteen RNC members, dozens of journalists and hundreds of other observers crowded into a packed ballroom to watch the five contenders for RNC Chairman lay out their respective visions for leading a robust party committee to victory in the 2012 election cycle. Steele was flanked on stage by four rivals: Wisconsin GOP Chairman and former ally Reince Priebus, RNC veteran Maria Cino, former Michigan party chair Saul Anuzis, and former RNC Co-Chair and Ambassador to Luxembourg Ann Wagner. Steele’s ex-political director, Gentry Collins, was expected to participate, but withdrew his candidacy on Sunday.
While each challenger each detailed his or her qualifications for the position, an uncharacteristically subdued Steele invited the committee’s 168 voting members to view next week’s election as a referendum on his stewardship. “My record stands for itself. We won,” he said. “I was asked to raise money, and I raised $190 million over the past two years. And the fact that we’re standing here right now celebrating that win says a lot about the record.” An unofficial whip count by Politico suggests that Steele has lost the support of more than half of the committee, deeply complicating his path to re-election.
His opponents saw it differently, arguing – often implicitly – that Republicans made big gains in 2010 in spite of what they called a troubled and cash-strapped RNC. Wagner was least sparing in her criticism, calling for the application of “tough love” to an organization she said was “steeped in mismanagement, distractions, and drama” under Steele’s leadership. Anuzis referenced the RNC’s $20 million debt in stating bluntly that the committee had reached a “moment of crisis,” a charge Steele dismissed. “I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy. I don't see the crisis as some see it," he said.
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