— As Republicans shift their sights to unseating President Barack Obama, national party Chairman Michael S. Steele will announce this evening whether he plans to run for another term at the party's helm.
Steele's intentions remained a mystery Sunday afternoon. "He has not tipped his hand to anybody that I know of," said Louis Pope, a Republican National Committee member from Maryland. "I'd say I'm pretty close in his inner circle."
Pope says he has "nothing but admiration" for Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor and U.S. Senate candidate in 2006, given the Republican Party's successful midterm elections. But Steele's chances of keeping his job are slipping away, according to present and former party officials.
The chairman's main task in the coming year is to give the 2012 ticket a strong financial footing. Steele's difficulties with raising and spending money are among the reasons some Republican National Committee members want new leadership when his term expires next month.
"We're a top-down party. We stick with the executive long after the ship has sunk, so I would never say that he can't win," said Norm Cummings, a former chief of staff of the committee. "I would say it's highly unlikely."
Steele, the Republican Party's first African-American chief, was selected in the aftermath of Obama's presidential victory, when many in the party saw him as a charismatic counter to the first black president. Now, concerns that the anti-Steele campaign will be perceived as racially motivated could complicate efforts to replace him.
Party officials say the push for a new chairman is about Steele's performance, not his race. They point to a falloff in donations from wealthy givers, staff turnover at party headquarters and the former Maryland lieutenant governor's inability to outgrow a weakness for verbal gaffes.
Yet Steele appeared poised to hold onto his job after Republicans enjoyed one of their best midterm showings since Franklin Roosevelt's day.
That has changed over the past month, as an expanding field of rivals — including two former Steele allies who have turned on him — takes aim at his record. Along with doubts about his viability, there are increasing questions about whether he will run at all.
The normally voluble Steele has been uncharacteristically silent. Since a post-election conference call, which struck listeners as an announcement speech for another two-year term, he's dropped from view.
His associates have gone from assuring reporters that he would run to claiming that they, too, are in the dark. Rumors have circulated of possible deals to ease him out, into various private-sector jobs, thus avoiding a potentially messy and politically damaging fight.
Steele, meantime, remains on the job. Last week , he presided over two days of budget planning for 2011, according to Pope, who was also there. His defenders, while acknowledging that the chairmanship contest is now wide open, point out that none of the challengers has gained traction yet.
The latest to enter, Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, who helped elect Steele and worked closely with him over the past two years, is promising "a tighter ship," "less drama" and "more hard work" at party headquarters.
Another prospect is Ann Wagner, a former Bush-era RNC official, who pledges to "restore the confidence of our donor base." Former RNC political director Gentry Collins, a dark-horse contender, went almost overnight from defending the RNC's performance under Steele to resigning with a blast over lax money-raising.
Connecticut Republican Chairman Chris Healy blames narrow Republican losses for governor in Oregon, Minnesota, Vermont and Connecticut on the RNC's failure to provide more money for voter turnout.
"Clearly, the whole Steele administration has really been about promoting Mike Steele for whatever future role he was going to play in the American political debate and not really focused on what the core mission of the Republican Party is," said Healy, who recently dropped plans to run for chairman himself.
Internal leadership contests are by secret ballot, and voters sometimes promise their backing to multiple candidates, making handicapping extremely hazardous.
The issue of race has worked to Steele's advantage before. His main rival last time was a South Carolinian whose former membership in an all-white country club became an issue, amid concerns that the last thing Republicans needed in the age of Obama was a white southerner at the helm.
Privately, one party insider said, many members of the RNC "live in fear that Steele will go all the way through: Show up at the election, run, lose and then give a big speech afterward" blaming his ouster on racial factors.
That may be one reason some Republicans are portraying the chairmanship election as anything but a referendum on Steele.
"This isn't about firing somebody. This is about hiring somebody," said Saul Anuzis, a committeeman from Michigan who was first to announce.
Steele's willingness to play the race card — he once said African-Americans like himself and Obama are held to a higher standard — "really turned me off, and I know if turned off a lot of members, including his supporters," said Healy, the Connecticut chairman.
As long as Obama remains in office, Republicans are unlikely to increase their support among blacks. But hints of intolerance or racial bias have the potential to complicate GOP efforts to attract moderate white swing voters, including suburban women, and younger voters.