WASHINGTON - Last year, with some fanfare, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele joined two prominent Republican moderates in announcing the revival of a centrist political organization, the Republican Leadership Council.
Now, Steele's name has mysteriously disappeared from the RLC's Web site.
Until recently, he was prominently listed as one of three co-founders, along with former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and former Missouri Sen. John Danforth. The change apparently happened within the past week, according to an Internet search.
There could be a practical reason for the disappearance of Steele's footprints from the site: His link to the group, critics say, is hurting his campaign for chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Social conservatives remain a potent force inside the Republican Party, and some have sharply criticized Steele's ties to the RLC. Steele, a former Catholic seminarian, is opposed to abortion, but Whitman has long drawn the scorn of activists for her support of abortion rights.
Colleen Parro, executive director of the anti-abortion Republican National Coalition for Life, recently called Steele's involvement with the RLC "deeply troubling."
She broke into laughter yesterday after clicking on the RLC's Web site and learning that the description of Steele's involvement was gone.
Neither officials with the RLC nor Steele responded to requests to discuss the Web alterations, but Parro noted that Steele was listed as a co-founder of the group as recently as last Friday. She saw the change as evidence that "he is trying to get away from it."
"It reflects the fact that it isn't a plus for anyone seeking the Republican National Committee chairmanship to be aligned so closely with the woman who was the most pro-abortion governor in the country and raises money to elect pro-abortion Republicans to Congress," said Parro. "It's unfortunate that, you know, that he chose to join up with them back when."
Co-founding the moderate group with Whitman has "caused Michael Steele quite a bit of problem among members of the RNC," she said. "It points to inconsistency and poor judgment on his part, so that's a problem."
The RLC, with Whitman as its most prominent member, has partnered with a number of moderate Republican organizations, including Log Cabin Republicans, which promotes gay rights within the party, and other groups that recruit Republican candidates who favor abortion rights, that are anathema to many social and religious conservatives.
Parro warned the 168 national committee members who will choose the new party chairman next month that Steele is "keeping company with those who ... wish to purge the party of its 'social fundamentalist' base, and ensure the further decline of the Republican Party by trying to attract 'moderates' who stand for nothing but tolerate anything."
Steele withdrew as an active member of the leadership council last spring. He no longer sits on its national board and as a result, Steele told editors and reporters of the Washington Times last month, he should not be listed on their Web site.
"I left, honestly, because I have a fundamental issue with organizations getting involved in primaries, and the organization was endorsing candidates in primaries, which I am fundamentally opposed to," Steele told the paper on Nov. 18.
A statement last summer by Whitman about Steele's decision to leave her group didn't mention any disagreement over political tactics.
She said Steele was "taking a step back from some of his previous commitments, including the RLC, to focus fully on GOPAC, which he chairs." GOPAC, an organization Steele has headed for two years, recruits Republicans for state and local offices.
"The RLC is pleased to partner with GOPAC for a number of events and looks forward to continuing to work with Steele and his staff on future endeavors. I am personally very grateful for his efforts in helping to get the RLC to where we are today," Whitman said in her June 23 statement on the group's Web site. A spokeswoman said Whitman was unavailable yesterday.
Steele is reaching out to religious and social conservatives in his campaign and denies that they have too much influence in the party. He has said he would keep a constitutional ban on abortion in the Republican platform.
But some conservatives aren't convinced.
Erick Erickson, who edits the influential conservative blog RedState.com, wrote that "the RLC alone makes me deeply leery of Michael Steele as RNC Chairman. These groups want to purge the GOP of social conservatives." He is opposing Steele's candidacy but says he might be persuaded to change his mind.
Parro said she had heard from "a few members" of the national committee who were concerned about Steele's ties to the RLC but declined to identify them.
online See the before and after versions of the Republican Leadership Council Web site at baltimoresun.com/michaelsteele