Salena Zito

Message to GOP Chairman Michael Steele and to those White House envoys who have effectively promoted him as some sort of party patsy: Focus on your jobs at hand.

Using Steele -- and Rush Limbaugh -- as political piñatas may give Democrats a short-term advantage, but that advantage is to their long-term detriment.

"All that does is alienate people, driving them back to their base," said one Democratic advisor who worries privately that his party's recent tack will be counterproductive.

Does a John Deere-voter in a Republican-red state really care if Steele apologizes to Limbaugh over some imagined slight? No.

Yet as analysts dissect Steele's "apology" as if it really matters, and the White House dispatches envoys to continue the story on cable-news networks, the economy free-falls.

It's time Steele got on with running the national party, perhaps taking a cue from another party chairman who had a rocky start but effectively rebuilt his party: Howard Dean. (Although Purdue University political scientist Bert Rockman believes Steele "has a tougher job than Dean ever did, even though Democrats' leadership is often a form of cat-herding.")

"As my grandmother used to say," said Steve McMahon, the Democrat-blue half of the media firm Purplestrategies, "Michael Steele needs to stick to his knitting."

McMahon, who knows and admires the GOP chairman, said Steele's job is to develop a 50-state strategy, to bring swing voters back to the fold, and to do it all in a way that does not alienate or offend the Republican base.

Yet, cautions Republican strategist Terry Nelson, "You can't confuse what Republicans need to do with what Michael Steele, chairman of the RNC, needs to do."

That's because, in some respects, they are very different things, he explains. "It is going to be hard for the chairman of the RNC to bring forward policies or to provide the overall message for the party. That part will mostly be driven by what is happening amongst the elected officials."

Steele's main focus today is to expand the voter pool that GOP candidates can rely on, to improve how the GOP turns them out, and to lead the party into a new communications venue. He must do all that with added emphasis on young, Hispanic and black voters; without them, the GOP will have a very difficult time winning the presidency or majorities in Congress.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.