Blackwell, former Ohio secretary of state and youngest-ever mayor of Cincinnati, is the social conservative's choice. (Read: Wholly owned subsidiary of the religious right.) He has also been endorsed by the College Republican National Committee. Other contestants include Michigan GOP Chair Saul Anuzis and Mike Duncan, the current RNC chair, who -- oddly and without irony -- is advocating "change."
All six men have something to recommend them, if not quite enough. Highly distilled, the upside-downside slate looks something like this:
Anuzis: Blue collar, former Teamster, beard (he brought it up in an interview), rides a Harley, straight shooter, knows how to deal. Downside: Beard.
Blackwell: African-American, smart, smooth. Downside: See religious right.
Dawson: Worked for Republican tactician Lee Atwater at age 14 and is perceived as an Atwater-Haley Barbour combo, ambitious, passionate, tireless. Downside: Before his death, Atwater apologized for his ruthless campaigning.
Duncan: Nice. Downside: Bush appointee.
Saltsman: Young (40), good communicator. Downside: Distributed that CD with the "Barack the Magic Negro" song.
Steele: African-American, celebrity, accomplished, mother was daughter of sharecropper (he brought it up). Downside: No guns and may harbor liberal thoughts.
All things considered, not a bad slate, but the devil is in the backroom where deals are made. As one longtime observer put it to me, this is the equivalent of electing a pope. He doesn't have to be a priest. But the College of Cardinals always elects one of its own.
Thus, the serious players are RNC members Duncan, Dawson and Anuzis. (Steele and Saltsman are former members, and Blackwell never belonged.)
Duncan's been-there, done-that status would seem to doom him, no matter how many times he holds up his 10-point plan, which could leave Anuzis and Dawson to face off in a North-South contest. Blue collar versus ... beige?
Anuzis worked his way through school while studying Newt Gingrich. Of Lithuanian descent, he learned to speak English at age 7 and would be the first first-generation American to serve as RNC chairman, if elected.
Dawson runs a family-owned auto parts business. And though a social conservative, his primary focus is on free markets and what Tammy the waitress down at the Lizard's Thicket, where Dawson goes for breakfast every morning, says she needs to feed her kids.
Perhaps it's time to resurrect the duel. Steele can call the shot.