In his first year as Republican national chairman, Michael Steele has alarmed and infuriated the GOP establishment with frequent gaffes and what some see as a tendency to put his personal interests ahead of the party's.
At the same time, the Republican National Committee has raised more money than its Democratic counterpart and helped its candidates to key wins. Capturing Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat thrilled Republicans and shifted attention from Steele's problems, which had re-emerged in recent weeks.
"We've got the Democrats on the ropes, and it's just a whole lot more satisfying to beat them up rather than each other," said David Norcross, a longtime national committeeman from New Jersey who is among those who've been critical of Steele.
Halfway through his term, Steele gives himself a grade of "B," conceding that there is room for improvement.
This week, RNC members won't be surprised if he apologizes for his shortcomings, as he has in the past, when he speaks to them behind closed doors at a meeting of the party's governing body.
The four-day session will take place at a beachfront hotel in Hawaii. It is believed to be the first time that the annual winter meeting - usually held in Washington - will convene in a resort setting.
Pictures of party bigwigs lolling on the sand aren't images Republican leaders in Congress want Americans to see in an election year, with joblessness and voter outrage running at dangerously high levels.
"Do I want voters to think that Republicans do nothing but go to beach resorts in January? No," House Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia said with a derisive snort.
By coincidence, Cantor and other Republican congressmen will be gathering in downtown Baltimore at the same time. Officials said that the city, with its double-digit unemployment, was chosen to make clear that Republicans understand the economic pain felt by ordinary Americans.
Steele's decision to meet at a Waikiki Beach resort and spa is viewed by critics inside the RNC as another case of putting himself first, rather than the party. They see it as payback for a key bloc of RNC supporters who were crucial to Steele's upset victory in the chairman's race.
An RNC spokesman denied that Steele picked Honolulu to redeem a campaign promise to the 18 members of the RNC's Island Caucus - which includes Hawaii and U.S. territories and whose support Steele has acknowledged as an important factor in his rise to party power. Steele was elected last January by a 14-vote margin.
"This is an opportunity for party-building in a blue state," said LeRoy Coleman, the RNC's director of media affairs. He said Hawaii was chosen because it has two competitive races this fall, for governor and U.S. House, a description that would apply to many, if not most, states this year.
Last month, Steele, the best-known Republican politician from Maryland, drew unfavorable publicity when it became known that he was continuing to get paid for giving motivational speeches. At times in the past, chairmen of both major parties have earned outside income; but many believe the current position, which pays $223,500 a year plus benefits, should be a full-time job.
And Republicans in Congress have expressed displeasure to Steele and his staff when he seemed to be trying to make policy for Republicans, rather than simply articulating the party line. They received another unpleasant surprise this month with Steele's new book, "Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda," which they hadn't known about in advance.
To some, Steele's book and promotional tour were outside money-making ventures. Others wondered if he was using his party job to position himself for the next stage of his career, perhaps as a commentator and high-dollar public speaker, or even a candidate for president. It didn't help that Steele's book attacked Republican politicians in Washington for abandoning conservative principles and failing to do more to oppose big-spending liberals.
The former Maryland lieutenant governor has publicly responded to his critics inside the party by telling them to "shut up."
"If you don't want me in the job," he said in an ABC Radio interview this month, "fire me."
The retort sounded impolitic, even loony. But Steele's challenge to his detractors was firmly rooted in reality. Even his biggest critics acknowledge that his job is secure.
It would be all but impossible to get a needed two-thirds vote of the RNC to remove him. And from a political standpoint, it would be self-defeating to oust the party's first black chairman in an election year.
More to the point, things have been going very well for Republicans over the past year. Even before Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts, Republicans had won the key races of 2009, taking governorships of New Jersey and Virginia from Democrats.
If the 2010 midterm elections go as successfully for Republicans as independent analysts expect, another two-year term for Steele might not be out of the question.
Meantime, senior Republicans in Congress appear resigned to seeing controversy pop up around Steele and make it clear that they remain wary.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, asked recently if he still had confidence in Steele's leadership, sidestepped the question.
"Chairman Steele will be judged on the basis of how much money did he raise and how many candidates did he elect," he said.
Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who propelled Steele onto the national scene by choosing the state party chairman from Prince George's County as his 2002 running mate, said that Republicans in Washington are still figuring Steele out.
"Mike's a different guy, and if you're expecting some button-down sort of personality type, you're not going to get that," said Ehrlich, who stays in close touch with his former colleagues in Congress. "It's a little more 'street.' It's a different vernacular. It's a different personality. It's a different approach. It's a little more risk-taking approach. So if you're not used to that, you may not react well."
Steele - much shrewder, friends say, than he's given credit for - has been trying to co-opt the Tea Party movement and channel a surge of conservative anger to his party's advantage. To that end, his clashes with elements of the Republican power structure could pay dividends in what is shaping up as an anti-establishment election year.
"I'm the guy that they're afraid of because, guess what? I'm a Tea Partier, I'm a town haller, I'm a grass-roots-er," Steele told a St. Louis radio station this month.
He has allied himself with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who wrote the foreword to Steele's book and came to his defense when critics launched their most recent attacks.
So did Alaska's former governor, Sarah Palin, who in some respects has emerged as the nation's leading Republican. She told Fox News that she e-mailed Steele to tell him that 99 percent of the American people were on his side against the old-line Republicans in Washington.
"I was like ... more power to you, Michael. You're calling it the way that you see it and you deserve to call it that way," Palin said. "And, basically, of course, his message was: Buck up or stay in the truck, critics. If you don't want to help out, ... then, you know, go find something else to do. But don't just sit there throwing stones and this internal inside baseball infighting in the Republican Party."
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