Washington - The most heated political campaign at the moment may be the one for Republican national chairman, but it's no ordinary contest.
How could it be, when one of the biggest campaign events is supposedly a Christmas party at Vice President Dick Cheney's official residence? When it takes only 85 votes to win? Or that, with the election just over a month away, the field of candidates is still murky?
At least a half-dozen Republicans have been eyeing the job, which pays about $200,000 a year. Setbacks suffered by the party in the last two national elections make the position unusually attractive, since history strongly favors a Republican rebound in 2010.
Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is among the front-runners, in part because he's a bigger celebrity than others who have announced. But he's gotten caught in the party's never-ending abortion wars and may have been hurt in the process.
Steele, who ran for the Senate in 2006 as a fiscal conservative opposed to abortion rights, is aggressively promoting himself as a media-savvy voice who can help his party win the daily communications battle against the Democrats. That could be a significant advantage,, since the Republicans are about to be without a national spokesman for the first time in a long while.
Republicans "will not have success without a party chairman who is very skilled at dealing with the media," contends Steele's campaign Web site,steeleforchairman.com.
Strangely or not, an articulate spokesman may not be what the electorate - the 168 men and women on the Republican National Committee - wants most in a new party leader. The ability to score points on TV is just one of several qualifications the next chairman will need, and not necessarily the one that will matter most to committee members.
"This is a multimillion-dollar business," said Scott Reed, who ran Haley Barbour's successful campaign for national chairman after the 1992 election, the last time the Republicans lost the White House. "It's a combination of communicating skills, comfort with donors, policy knowledge and the ability to run the building"- the party's headquarters on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Privately, one RNC member compared the chairman's contest to a race for class president and explained that catering to the needs of the committeemen and women may be more important than having a vision for the party.
The election will take place during the committee's winter meeting, Jan. 28-31 in Washington.
Right now, the favorite appears to be the incumbent, Mike Duncan, a mild-mannered Kentuckian who was picked for the job by President George W. Bush in 2007. He has not announced his intentions, but he's expected to jump into the race this week.
Duncan got a boost the other day when Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss won an important runoff victory in Georgia, blocking Democrats from gaining a super-majority in the Senate. The RNC invested heavily in Chambliss' campaign, and Duncan was on hand Election Night to claim credit.
Some Republicans think it's time for a new face to lead their party, especially after the drubbing the party took in the 2008 election. History, though, suggests otherwise.
The party job may well go to Duncan or another insider, since the committee tends to favor one of its own when there's no Republican president to dictate the choice. Announced candidates include Saul Anuzis and Katon Dawson, the state party chairmen from Michigan and South Carolina, respectively, and Chip Saltsman, a former Tennessee party chairman who ran Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign.
Steele is regarded as an outsider by many, if not most, national committee members. They weren't around when he was an RNC member, as Maryland's Republican Party chairman, from 2000 to 2002.
Steele has been pursuing his campaign through private talks with committee members and appearances on media outlets like Fox News Channel (he's a paid contributor) and Hugh Hewitt's talk radio show. Steele did not respond to repeated interview requests to his spokeswoman.
His critics, mainly social conservatives, are attacking his ties to party moderates. Joyce Terhes, a veteran committeewoman from Maryland, sent an e-mail to other RNC members last month expressing anger about "an anonymous mudslinging campaign" which claimed that Steele "is not as pro-life as he needs to be." Terhes noted that Steele was endorsed by the National Right to Life Committee in his 2006 Senate campaign and called him "a staunch pro-lifer."
Steele is being openly opposed by the executive director of the Republican National Committee for Life, an anti-abortion group. Colleen Parro wrote on her blog last month that Steele's involvement with the Republican Leadership Council, a moderate organization led by former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, an abortion-rights advocate, is "deeply troubling." Apparently in response to the criticism, references to Steele's co-founding of the organization were recently removed from the group's Web site. Steele has said he left the organization earlier this year.
One Republican national committeeman, who has spoken with at least 10 announced or potential candidates for the party chairmanship, said Steele "is getting frustrated because he isn't getting a lot of votes." He only has between five and 10 supporters, including the three Marylanders on the committee, according to this RNC member, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about the campaign.
Another RNC member, David Norcross of New Jersey, called Steele "a good friend" but said the Marylander had not emerged as the front-runner. Steele, he said, has been hurt by not being a member of the RNC, which "has generally shown a preference for one of its own, when it's in a position to make a choice." He went on to say that there was no clear leader in the chairman's race yet.
The fluidity of the contest has led some Republican activists to call for a candidate debate, televised on C-SPAN. One group of RNC conservatives wants to screen the contenders later this month and make an endorsement. There was even a published report the other day, on The Atlantic magazine's political blog, that several candidates for chairman would be at Cheney's Christmas party, where many RNC members would also be attending, "so it'll be a chance for one-on-one politicking." A spokeswoman for the vice president refused to confirm the guest list, but some RNC members went to President Bush's Christmas party instead. A party insider explained that those who didn't make the White House list had gotten invites to the Veep's house as a consolation prize.