Oxon Hill — — Events over the next six months will determine whether Michael S. Steele gets another term as Republican national chairman, party leaders said after Steele defended his financial stewardship in a private meeting Tuesday.
"He addressed what he called the big elephant in the room," said Saul Anuzis, a national committeeman from Michigan, referring to news accounts of lavish Republican National Committee spending.
"Nobody wanted to ask the question, and he came out and addressed it," said Anuzis, who lost to Steele in the chairman's race and has become an ally.
Steele went into detail on jets chartered by the national party, the hotel rooms he stays in and types of cars he uses when he travels, participants reported. After Republicans were embarrassed by reports that nearly $2,000 in party money was spent at a topless club in West Hollywood, Steele replaced his chief of staff and several top finance officers at RNC headquarters in Washington.
He "certainly acknowledged that there were mistakes, and that's why there were changes in the finance area," said Dick Wadhams, the Colorado Republican chairman, adding that Steele did not explicitly apologize for any missteps.
In one sense, Steele was reassuring the converted. Many in the breakfast audience at the National Harbor convention center in Prince George's County delivered a public vote of confidence last month in the aftermath of the spending flap, when 38 state party chairmen declared in a letter that they "stand behind Chairman Steele."
The former Maryland lieutenant governor's sometimes rocky tenure as party chairman is up in January, and there is speculation that it might not be extended through the next presidential election. Republican activists and strategists say having a gaffe-prone national chairman could complicate efforts by their 2012 candidate to defeat President Barack Obama.
Steele, in an interview, said it was "way premature" to speculate about a second term as party chairman.
"I'm not even thinking about it," he said, adding that he would run on his record should he decide to compete.
The people who will make the decision — the RNC's 168 members — appear, at the moment, largely supportive. Those who privately criticize Steele and would prefer a new chairman say it is too early to predict whether he might be replaced next year.
Interviews with a dozen RNC members indicated that he would be measured against the party's expectations for a strong showing in this fall's elections. Whether he remains gaffe-free between now and November could also be a significant factor.
"I think that if we raise the money and win the elections, which I think we'll do, he deserves another term," said Joyce Terhes of Maryland, in a remark echoed by other committee members.
Under Steele, the RNC has raised more than $108 million. It had $11.4 million in the bank at the end of March, about the same as its Democratic counterpart when debts are taken into account.
Most forecasts call for significant Republican gains in the midterm contests that will determine control of both houses of Congress and governorships in 37 states, including Maryland.
Steele was warmly praised by Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, chairman of the party's congressional campaign committee, during a private lunch for RNC members, participants said.
And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an outspoken Steele defender over the past 15 months, tossed him a bouquet at the start of a speech to party leaders.
"Chairman Steele stands on the edge of being the most successful RNC chairman since Haley Barbour in 1994," Gingrich said, prompting applause. Steele, the only other person on the flag-bedecked stage, beamed.