The men vying to lead GOP out of the wilderness

The Baltimore Sun

When it comes to the six Republicans competing for lead dog of the GOP leadership, all are on point: They love Ronald Reagan, are pro-life, advocate small government and promise more diversity and fewer taxes.

They are also, with one exception, locked and loaded - armed in Second Amendment solidarity. During a 90-minute debate this week at the National Press Club, only Michael S. Steele, the former Maryland lieutenant governor, confessed to owning no guns.

Say what? In a race where Mr. Steele's conservative bona fides are already held in suspicion, did his admission unseal any deal? Can True Conservatives trust a man who doesn't pack heat?

Katon Dawson, the South Carolina Republican chairman, said he had too many weapons to count. John "Chip" Saltsman, who managed Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign, listed a bevy of beloveds.

The new party leader, to be selected by the 168-member committee, will be the face of the Republicans during a new Democratic reign. By the choice of its chief spokesman, the GOP will redefine itself. Or will it?

Will party leaders continue to cling to a base that no longer resonates with a growing majority of Americans? Or will Republicans recognize that the world has changed and that the fabled big tent needs to be more than a revival tent?

Looking at the panel of contestants, one can't help noticing that there are six men. But two - Mr. Steele and Ken Blackwell - are African-American. The telegenic, Fox-commentating Mr. Steele is fondly remembered in some circles for his "Drill, baby, drill" speech at last summer's GOP convention.

Mr. Blackwell, former Ohio secretary of state, is the social conservatives' choice (read: wholly owned subsidiary of the religious right). He has also been endorsed by the College Republican National Committee. Other contestants include Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis and Mike Duncan, the current RNC chair, who - oddly and without irony - is advocating "change."

All six men have something to recommend them, if not quite enough. Highly distilled, the upside-downside slate looks something like this:

Mr. Anuzis: Blue collar, former Teamster, beard (he brought it up in an interview), rides a Harley, straight shooter, knows how to deal. Downside: beard.

Mr. Blackwell: African-American, smart, smooth. Downside: See religious right.

Mr. Dawson: Worked for Republican tactician Lee Atwater at age 14 and is perceived as an Atwater-Haley Barbour combo, ambitious, passionate, tireless. Downside: Before his death, Mr. Atwater apologized for his ruthless campaigning.

Mr. Duncan: Nice. Downside: Bush appointee.

Mr. Saltsman: Young (40), good communicator. Downside: Distributed that CD with the "Barack the Magic Negro" song.

Mr. Steele: African-American, celebrity, accomplished, mother was daughter of sharecropper (he brought it up). Downside: No guns and may harbor liberal thoughts.

All things considered, not a bad slate, but the devil is in the backroom where deals are made. As one longtime observer put it to me, this is the equivalent of electing a pope. The College of Cardinals always elects one of its own. Thus, the serious players are RNC members Duncan, Dawson and Anuzis.

Mr. Duncan's been-there, done-that status would seem to doom him, no matter how many times he holds up his 10-point plan, which could leave Mr. Anuzis and Mr. Dawson to face off in a North-South contest.

Mr. Anuzis worked his way through school while studying Newt Gingrich. Of Lithuanian descent, he would be the first first-generation American to serve as RNC chairman. Mr. Dawson runs a family-owned auto parts business. And though a social conservative, his primary focus is on free markets.

Perhaps it's time to resurrect the duel. Mr. Steele can call the shot.

Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is

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