WASHINGTON – Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele was on the receiving end of a fresh round of criticism from prominent party members Thursday after an interview was released in which he referred to abortion an “individual choice.”
His comments to GQ magazine inflamed opponents of abortion rights, one of the GOP’s core constituencies, and further complicated an already difficult first month on the job for Steele.
Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who endorsed Steele in the RNC chairman’s race, harshly condemned the remark. “Chairman Steele needs to re-read the Bible, the U.S. Constitution, and the 2008 GOP Platform,” said Blackwell. “He then needs to get to work or get out of the way.”
Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and 2008 presidential candidate, called Steele’s comments “very troubling” in a post on his Huck PAC Web site; Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, condemned Steele’s comments as “cavalier” and “flippant,” adding that the chairman’s comments “reinforce the belief by many social conservatives that one major party is unfriendly while the other gives only lip service to core moral issues.”
Steele backtracked quickly after the interview, which was conducted weeks ago, was released, issuing a statement Thursday morning. “I tried to present why I am pro life while recognizing that my mother had a ‘choice’ before deciding to put me up for adoption,” Steele said in the statement. “I thank her every day for supporting life.”
Some in the anti-abortion movement said they were satisfied with Steele’s explanation. James Bopp Jr., a prominent abortion rights opponent, said he has “never had any doubt that Steele is personally pro-life” and added that Steele’s “clarification was needed and should put this to rest.”
Steele also received votes of confidence from two of his former rivals for the RNC chairmanship. Saul Anuzis, the former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party said the comments would have “little effect” on Steele’s chairmanship, while Chip Saltsman, the former head of the Tennessee Republican Party, acknowledged that his one-time rival was “off to a slow start (but) I have a lot of faith in him.”
Katon Dawson, the outgoing chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party and the runner-up to Steele in the chairman’s race, was in Washington on Thursday for meetings with members of the state’s congressional delegation as well as several conservative groups. The trip had been set up more than a month ago, according to one South Carolina source, and had nothing to do with Steele’s recent troubles or any effort to supplant him.
Despite the misgivings, several party sources said that in the near term Steele remained secure in his position, citing the difficulty of removing him, the desire to quell the appearance of further chaos within the party and the willingness to allow Steele time to establish himself.