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FOR GOP'S STEELE, A TIME TO FLY OR FALL

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington -Michael S. Steele completed his first 100 days as Republican national chairman this weekend, but the party let the milestone pass without notice.

Steele made history in January as the first African-American to head the Republican National Committee. It's been largely downhill since, though, with Republicans in disarray and Steele under siege over a variety of woes, many self-inflicted.

Now, as the RNC prepares to hold a rare, special meeting later this month in the same Maryland county where he began his political rise, Steele's standing as a national leader may be on the line. He plans to deliver a major speech at the party gathering, which could relaunch his chairmanship and stop him from sliding into irrelevance and becoming little more than an object of ridicule for his enemies.

"There were some bumps out of the gate, obviously, which everyone acknowledged, including him," said media consultant Curt Anderson, a close adviser.

He said Steele won't change an often outlandish speaking style, which seems intended to freshen the party's stiff image and make it more appealing to younger voters and minorities. Recently, Steele accused defecting Sen. Arlen Specter of having "flip(ped) the bird" to his Republican colleagues, a remark some found offensive. On a radio show last week, he dismissed President Obama's desire to nominate a Supreme Court justice who displays empathy as "crazy nonsense," adding, "I'll give you empathy. Empathize right on your behind."

"He's going to be a colorful guy," Anderson said. "People who are hoping that he's now going to be really boring and not quotable are out of luck."

But, he added, Steele has learned from his mistakes and is "beginning to hit his stride."

If that's so, it isn't a moment too soon.

Republicans are continuing to lose ground this year. The outlook for the party is "certainly bleak," a recent Gallup poll analysis concluded, while Obama and the Democrats enjoy far greater popularity with key groups of Americans, especially those under age 30.

In the first test of the Obama era - a special House election in traditionally Republican upstate New York - Steele lifted expectations for a Republican victory. The Democratic candidate won, narrowly, instead.

Specter's party switch can't be blamed on Steele, but the chairman angered moderates in February when he indicated that he was open to withholding campaign funds from Specter and other centrist Republicans who voted for the Obama stimulus plan.

"In fairness to Steele, I can't imagine a worse time to be chairman of the RNC. But he's only made the situation worse for himself," said Philip Klinkner, a Hamilton College political scientist who is a specialist on national party committees. "Steele's just done a bad job, no matter what standard you want to hold him to."

Aides say Steele is getting an enthusiastic reception from rank-and-file Republicans at appearances around the country.

"Chairmen and political parties are measured by the totalities of their successes or shortcomings, and we know that this is a two-year term," said Trevor Francis, the RNC communications director.

Even his detractors say Steele's job is not in danger and that he'll be regarded as a success if the RNC helps Republican candidates win elections this fall for governor of Virginia and New Jersey and in 2010 for the House and Senate.

At the moment, though, Republican insiders are increasingly impatient. Steele has been far too slow, they say, to put his team in place at party headquarters in Washington. And the failure to muster a coordinated response to Obama and the Democrats has so far helped give the opposition a free ride.

Fundraising, perhaps the RNC's most important responsibility, has been stable. But Steele, who lacks a national money-raising network of his own, has yet to name a finance chairman, and that worries prominent Republican funders.

"If he stays on his current trajectory, without a finance chairman, I think he'll have trouble raising money," said Wayne Berman, a Washington lobbyist and Republican fundraising veteran.

Internally, RNC members are still squabbling, months after putting outsider Steele in charge. Veterans of both major parties say they can't remember a time when a national committee was in such disarray after choosing a new chairman.

Steele's inability, or unwillingness, to patch things up with the old establishment has become, at the very least, a distraction and an embarrassment, and poses a continuing test of his leadership ability.

"There seems to be a feeling that if you didn't vote for him, you're an archenemy," said David A. Norcross, a longtime committeeman from New Jersey and former RNC general counsel. Norcross, who backed another candidate for chairman, was among those who made Steele agree to constraints on RNC spending after the party's longtime comptroller was let go along with the rest of the senior staff.

The biggest surprise has been Steele's weak performance as a communicator, the skill that got him the job in the first place. Of course, some of the traits that made him a popular Fox News commentator, including an ability to say provocative things, are the reverse of what's needed as a party spokesman.

Early on, he enraged grass roots conservatives by tangling with Rush Limbaugh. Then, in a magazine interview, he seemed to abandon the party's anti-abortion plank. He gave critics more ammunition by appearing to suggest that he might run for president one day and by insisting that his stumbles were actually a deliberate strategy designed to smoke out his enemies.

More recently, he's reduced his media exposure (he declined an interview request for this article) but managed to make himself a target for fresh abuse by approving at least $18,500 in decorations for his office.

"He got off to a rough start because of his very prominent gaffes. Now, he's encountering some internal turbulence with members of the committee," said John J. Pitney Jr., a Republican activist who teaches politics at Claremont-McKenna College in California. "You'd have to say it's been a difficult 100 days for him."

Steele has installed several well-regarded political mechanics at national headquarters, where the important work of regaining the competitive edge in campaign technology from the Democrats will be a measure of his success or failure.

On May 20, the RNC will hold a special session in Prince George's County, where Steele was born, started working in Republican politics and still resides. RNC members called the meeting - only the second such session in the past 30 years, according to Norcross - to vote on a series of resolutions intended to move the party forward. Among the most provocative: one that would formally label the opposition as the "Democrat Socialist Party."

The 50-year-old former lieutenant governor of Maryland plans to use the occasion to deliver a major speech, an attempt, presumably, to refocus the party on the rebuilding challenge it faces and re-establish himself as a leader in that effort.

"The party has got a long ways to come back, to earn our way back with the American people," said RNC member Henry Barbour from Mississippi, a nephew of Haley Barbour, who went from Republican national chairman to governor of the state. "I think Michael can get us there. If he's not successful, the party's not successful."

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