WASHINGTON – Following an election that has left Republicans with no clear vision about how to regain power, the normally low-profile race to head the GOP’s national committee has turned into a six-man showdown that has opened rifts along racial, regional and ideological lines.
As Republicans debate their future, the contest for chairman of the Republican National Committee has become a proxy for the major questions at the center of the party’s challenges: how to attract young and minority voters, win outside the South and counter an increasingly powerful Democratic majority.
The sharp criticism by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Ga., and other Republicans of Chip Saltsman, a candidate for chairman who sent party members a CD that included the song “Barack the Magic Negro,” reignited worries that the party is losing touch with the moderate, suburban voters who are key to winning national elections. But nearly all the candidates are facing intense scrutiny from party factions, as GOP officials view the next chairman as a vital figure in the post-Bush era.
The hopefuls are campaigning as though they were running for president, bombarding RNC members with calls and e-mails, appearing on national cable shows, enlisting allies to rally support and, in Saltsman’s case, piloting his Piper Arrow plane around the country to meet with committee members.
Heavy interest in the race has also caused leading party figures, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, to become involved.
“What you’re watching is, as the party assesses why it lost, you have to understand what happened before you can figure out what to do,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster.
The 168 RNC members, including three from each state, will vote on a new chairman in meetings in Washington this month. Because President Bush has recommended the past several party chairmen, the contest is the first open race to lead the committee in a decade.
A regional divide has emerged between North and South, with former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis pitted against Saltsman of Tennessee and Katon Dawson, the South Carolina party chairman. While not criticizing the candidates or party members from the South, Steele and Anuzis have emphasized the importance of competing in states where the GOP has struggled in recent years.
“If we are a party that can speak to Utah, South Carolina and Kansas, but can’t reach voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, we will be a losing party,” Anuzis has said.
The two black candidates are perhaps the most ideologically divided. Former Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell has long been embraced by conservative groups such as the anti-tax Club for Growth, while Steele has faced criticism for being, until recently, a leader of the Republican Leadership Council, which urges party members to be more tolerant of candidates who support abortion rights.
Steele emphasizes the need for the GOP to appeal to black and other minority groups.
Saltsman’s run was complicated even before the CD controversy. He ran Huckabee’s presidential campaign last year, leaving some party officials wary of picking someone associated with a potential 2012 candidate, particularly after Huckabee made calls on Saltsman’s behalf.
And Kentucky’s Mike Duncan, the current GOP chairman, is running for re-election despite sharp criticism from some party activists who wonder how he could be rewarded with another term after presiding over the November defeat.
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