Washington - Over the years, Michael Steele has gained a large following in Republican circles, even though he has never won a major office on his own. That rather unfortunate distinction, however, could be about to change.
Some handicappers are writing him off, but the former lieutenant governor of Maryland looks like a strong contender to become the next Republican national chairman. If he wins the job in this week's election, he'll instantly become a leading spokesman for a party that has no place to go but up.
Steele has been telling fellow members of his devastated party, through a posting on his sophisticated campaign Web site: "I think I may have some keys to open the door, some juice to turn on the lights."
He'll only get to flip the switch, though, if he can out-compete five other men for the position, which pays about $200,000 a year.
Steele's biggest assets are his upbeat personality, positive speaking style and reputation as a conservative media celebrity. Making him the party's first black chairman might help improve the battered Republican image, not only with minority voters but also among white suburban moderates.
"Race in my opinion should not be a consideration for the election," said Jim Greer, the Florida Republican chairman and a Steele supporter. "But if the nation can celebrate the first African-American president, it would seem to me that it would be good for the Republican Party to have the opportunity to celebrate our first African-American chairman."
Steele isn't the only black candidate in the race. Encouraged by a number of leading conservative activists, most of whom regard Steele as dangerously moderate, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is also running.
It's no ordinary contest.
For two months, the candidates have conducted extensive campaigns. They've reached out online, by telephone, in person, and through media interviews - mainly with conservative outlets and bloggers. They've flown to every corner of the country - Steele made it to the Dakotas on a coast-to-coast tour - for the sole purpose of privately wooing the three people from each state who, as members of the Republican National Committee, will gather in Washington to pick their new chairman.
It's also an expensive campaign. An adviser to one of the candidates said the winner will likely have spent well into six figures.
But the spoils are substantial.
Party chairmen bestow jobs and millions of dollars worth of consulting contracts for fundraising, advertising and strategic advice.
Steele has the active support of some talented consultants, including Curt Anderson, whose firm produced imaginative TV ads for Steele's 2006 race for Maryland's U.S. Senate seat. Opponents whisper that Steele would turn national Republican headquarters into a gravy train for his consultants, so he issued an ethics plan and promised to create a system of merit-based contracting.
To rebut those who see him as little more than an appealing TV face, he's calling himself "a big techno-wonk" and has set out a detailed plan to help the party close a dangerous digital gap with the Democrats.
Only 168 men and women are eligible to vote, but scrutiny of the candidates is approaching presidential-campaign levels, and intensive media attention is going a long way toward filling the post-November election void.
Stuart Rothenberg, an independent analyst, agreed with others that the race is still wide open. He described Steele as "unpredictable" and wrote that, despite his "strong TV presence ... even some of his friends say that he can be a loose cannon."
Along with his rivals, Steele has had to deal with some missteps.
At a public forum with dozens of RNC members present, the candidates were asked how many guns they own. Steele was the only one who answered "none."
Lest he appear to have disarmed himself before his pro-gun party (though his pro-gun views are not in doubt), he managed to work in a visit to a New Mexico gun range. A photo of that campaign stop, posted on his Web site, shows Steele cradling what appears to be an assault rifle.
To bolster his contention that he can help Republicans claw their way out of their current predicament, he touts his achievement as the first African-American to hold statewide office in Maryland. Exactly how he got there, though, might confuse those from places where lieutenant governors are elected separately from the governor, unlike in Maryland, where they run as a ticket.
"In a state where Democrats hold more than a 2-to-1 advantage over Republicans, I was elected lieutenant governor," Steele boasted in a video for RNC members, neglecting to mention Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who picked him and led the 2002 Republican team.
Steele has tried to answer what may be his biggest liability - that he may not be sufficiently conservative - by circulating an endorsement from fellow Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, a hero to millions on the right. In a letter to RNC members, Hannity described Steele as "the best kind of conservative - an unapologetic conservative."
Races for party chairman are notoriously unpredictable. Typically, they are popularity contests and revolve around personal connections, not strategic considerations.
The current chairman, Mike Duncan, is a nominal favorite to gain re-election. Duncan did a creditable, if fairly colorless, job as President George W. Bush's hand-picked chairman. He has the most public commitments from RNC members, nearly all of whom joined the committee during Bush's presidency.
But with Republicans arguably in a hole even deeper than in the dark days of Watergate, it's conceivable that party leaders might rise above their self-interests and choose a new face who can help put the party on a comeback path.
A Duncan spokesman, Chris Taylor, said that Steele appears to be gaining and "is looking strong" heading into this week's vote. If the party decides it wants "change for change sake," he added, Steele may well win the job.