As Michael S. Steele decides whether to seek another term as Republican national chairman, a faction within the party hierarchy is working aggressively behind the scenes to oppose a bid.
Party leaders have remained divided over Steele's administration since his 2009 election, and members of the party's national committee say that his expected effort to win re-election would mean a bruising intra-party fight.
"I think there will be numerous candidates," said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican chairman who lost to Steele and might run again. "Sometime next week, the pack will start breaking loose, because otherwise you'll start to run out of time."
Critics say Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor, is the wrong person to lead the national committee into the next election, when Republicans hope to defeat President Barack Obama and complete a takeover of Congress.
With Republican lawmakers gaining influence in Washington and the presidential contest about to begin, critics contend, the party needs a chairman who can raise money and keep the internal apparatus running smoothly.
"It's not a matter of firing him. It's a matter of who we're going to hire to do the job for the next two years," said Jim Bopp, a national committeeman from Indiana who voted against Steele two years ago because he did not believe the Fox News commentator was conservative enough.
"I think he's demonstrated that he's not a successful fundraiser and he's not a good manager," said Bopp. "When he was running the first time, his principal asset was said to be his ability to command attention for our message. Of course, the opposite proved to be true."
A stream of major gaffes, along with embarrassing revelations about mismanagement and deepening money woes at party headquarters, have fueled anti-Steele sentiment since his election nearly two years ago.
Steele surprised and angered Republican leaders, including those in Congress, when he decided to supplement his annual salary of $223,000 plus benefits by writing a book and picking up speaking fees. Among his remarks that angered fellow Republicans was a prediction this year that the party would not regain a majority in the House of Representatives in 2010 and a comment that the conflict in Afghanistan, begun under a Republican administration and widely supported by Republican officials, was "a war of Obama's choosing."
The Republican National Committee election is set for mid-January in Washington. Before then, a candidate would need to raise enough money to travel the country and solicit votes from the 168 national committee members who will choose the next chairman.
Steele has not declared his candidacy but signaled plans to run to some RNC members privately last month. Insiders say he can count on 40 to 50 of the 85 votes needed to win, with roughly an equal number firmly opposed and the rest undecided.
Saul Anuzis, a national committeeman from Michigan who was one of several unsuccessful candidates for the job Steele won, said recent conversations with RNC colleagues convinced him that there is a "growing consensus" for a change at the top. After his defeat, he was given a national party position by Steele, but Anuzis could take him on again.
At least a half-dozen Republicans, mainly party insiders largely unknown to the public, are considered potential candidates. Perhaps the most intriguing possibility is Reince Priebus, the Wisconsin Republican chairman, who helped oversee one of the party's most sweeping victories in this month's election.
Priebus, a close Steele ally, has advised Steele that he could have trouble winning re-election and might want to consider stepping down when his term ends in January, The New York Times reported this week, citing anonymous anti-Steele Republicans as sources.
Priebus, who did not respond to an e-mail request for comment, might have backed off a tentative plan to run after Steele "screamed" at him in a phone call last weekend. RNC spokesman Doug Heye, asked for a response from the Steele camp, said he could not comment about the purported conversation, which was relayed by an RNC member who opposes Steele's re-election; Heye said party lawyers have advised him that, as an RNC employee, he may not be involved in the RNC leadership contest.
The anti-Steele forces, said to include former Bush political adviser Karl Rove, insist they are gaining ground. But the party's recent midterm election triumph might prompt RNC members to resist a change, in spite of Steele's uneven performance.
Bob Bennett, a longtime Republican National Committee member from Ohio, said Steele's re-election prospects "are pretty good. He just led the party to probably the best victory we've had in 60 years."
He said Steele had "done a good job" under the circumstances, including not having an incumbent president to help raise money for the national party.
"To the winner goes the spoils," said Sharon Day, a national committeewoman from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. She said Steele deserves "some credit" for the party's 2010 successes, even though "he hasn't been a perfect chairman."
She said she would be "forever appreciative" of Steele's 48-state "Fire Pelosi" bus tour, which gave a well-timed morale boost to several long-shot congressional candidates in her state who eventually won.
"That meant as much to me as anything he has done," Day said. "I think the bus trip was very important."
Steele's antagonists dismiss the bus tour as nothing more than an effort to preserve his job.
"You can make a reasonable argument that those hundreds of thousands of dollars could have been better used," said Chris Healy, the Connecticut Republican chairman, who is considering a run for chairman.
Healy also criticized Steele's trip in September "on the RNC dime" to the U.S. territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Votes from the 18 RNC members from island territories and Hawaii were key to Steele's upset victory, and he has remained attentive to their interests, holding a first-ever meeting of the Republican National Committee in Hawaii last winter and visiting Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Among the issues Steele would have to deal with in a re-election contest is the state of the party's finances.
The RNC ended the 2010 campaign in debt, which is not unusual. But the size of the deficit — about $22 million, according to two national committee members — could raise fresh questions about his ability to attract the vast sums needed for 2012. Heye said he could not confirm the debt figure, which has yet to be disclosed.
Among those working to supplant Steele is Henry Barbour, a Republican committeeman from Mississippi. His uncle, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, is a former RNC chairman who partially eclipsed Steele as a national Republican spokesman in the closing weeks of the fall campaign.
The governor is a potential presidential candidate, making it unlikely that his nephew could challenge Steele directly.
Politicians in both parties are leery of close ties between presidential contenders and national party officials, who are expected to remain neutral during the primary season. Because of that, some Republicans have privately expressed concern about speculation that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin might endorse Steele for chairman.
Palin, one of the most popular potential Republican presidential candidates, appeared with Steele last month in California and Florida, and he recently came to her defense on national TV by advising her critics to "shut up." The RNC provided about $250,000 this year to help Palin pay legal bills dating from the 2008 campaign in exchange for her help with fundraising, and Steele spokesman Heye has said the two have a "great working relationship."
Since the midterm election, Steele has given vague answers about when he would formally announce his plans. If he ran and lost, it could diminish his reputation and future earning power, which even his strongest critics say he's cagey enough to recognize.
"Why Steele is even attempting a run is beyond me. He can take credit for the Republican victory and go right back on as a Fox News contributor," said a Republican official who requested that his name not be used so he could speak freely. "Running and losing is not a good option for Michael Steele. Stepping down and moving aside is a heck of an option."